Sunday September 9, 2012

LEE -- Members of the First Con gregational Church view an upcoming weekend of jazz concerts -- featuring a Grammy Award nominee -- as an effort to expand its use as a performing arts venue.

The historic landmark in downtown Lee will be the main stage for the inaugural Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend, Sept. 14-16. Performances at the 155-year-old church by renowned saxophonist Charles Neville and jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson nominated three times for a Grammy and appearing with the Amherst Jazz Orchestra, highlight the three-day event.

In addition, the Spectrum Playhouse on Franklin Street will host the husband and wife duo of Sonny & Perley and their quartet.

The three aforementioned concerts require paid admissions, with additional local and regional musical groups performing -- free of charge -- at the playhouse and other downtown venues throughout the weekend, according to organizers.

The jazz festival is a collaboration of the Lee Community Development Corporation (CDC), the church, Berkshire Jazz Inc. and the Lee-based College Internship Program (CIP), which oversees the playhouse.

The First Congregational Church was once the center of town activity, a place where the annual town meetings took place.

Currently, nearly 10 non-church groups regularly meet in the parish hall where weekly Wednesday community suppers also take place.


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The church has also staged other one-time concerts and provides the land that is used for the town park adjacent to Town Hall on Main Street.

Now, the church aims to enhance its role in Lee’s downtown revitalization by promoting the house of worship as a year-round performing arts facility.

"We hope the community as a whole sees the church as a useful structure for the stability of the downtown," said Garth Story, chairman of the church’s historic preservation committee.

Church pastor, Rev. Bill Neil noted how the church in recent years has gradually become an integral part of Lee’s cultural and performing arts scene.

"For 15 years we’ve been a sponsor of Festival Latino during Founders’ Weekend," Neil said. "We let the performers use the park and our facilities for their event."

Event coordinator, Richard Vinette, says the First Congregational Church, with its great acoustics, is a natural musical venue.

"When I first went inside I said ‘Wow,’ said Vinette, former executive director of the Lee CDC. "I knew it wasn’t a stretch of imagination to use the church."

The original church, built in 1800, was a meeting house. It was replaced by a more traditional structure that was destroyed by fire in January 1857. More than a year later, the third and present church was completed. It has become a high-maintenance building the last three years.

Since 2009, the congregation has spent well over $300,000 to repair the church’s iconic steeple, bring it up to current building codes and, this summer, give it a new paint job.

Church officials hope to host future performing arts events, in partnership with Spectrum Playhouse, that can raise funds toward the church’s upkeep.

"We literally talked about creating one solid activity a month," Story said. "There’s a lot of merit to always having something going on."

However, the collaboration is a work in progress, according to CIP and Spectrum Playhouse founder, Michael McManmon.

"We’ve made suggestions [to church officials] about future events we can work on together," McManmon said.

Vinette foresees events like the jazz weekend making Lee a cultural destination, not just the town off Exit 2 of the Massachusetts Turnpike that’s the gateway to the Berkshires other performing arts venues.

"You know you’re in the Berkshires when you come to Lee," Vinette noted. "So why can’t the town be part of the cultural scene?"