In 1978, when Cathy Lee founded Studio Red Top, the jazz world reflected one unfortunate aspect of the society around it: it was run like an old boys club. Gender-based discrimination was rampant. It’s depressing to think about, and impossible to calculate how much good music we missed because of it. It is far more interesting to recount what Studio Red Top was doing about it at the local level.

Studio Red Top logoCathy Lee founded Studio Red Top to showcase the work of women musicians playing jazz, and expand the opportunities available to them. To do that, she ended up filling the roles of both concert producer and director of a non-profit corporation.

Studio Red Top starts out as one of those improbable lives-in-the-arts stories. It was still possible in the late 1970s to find loft space in Boston’s aging industrial buildings at a reasonable rent. One group, the Friends of Great Black Music, were doing concerts at their loft near South Station. Lee had something like that in mind. A friend told her about a building at 76 Batterymarch Street with vacant space on the fifth floor, and in June 1978, she rented it. It was a walk-up with no air conditioning, but it included an upright piano, abandoned by some long-departed tenant. Down on the second floor was a punk music club called The Space, dishing out eardrum-shattering music nightly. Around the corner was Saints, a womens’ bar where Lee’s friends in the jazz group Bougainvillea played. It was here that Lee founded Studio Red Top.

Lee wanted to create an environment where women could play without having to put up with all the usual crap—a place where they’d be accepted and taken seriously. Lee, a jazz-loving poet and ardent feminist, was both pro-jazz and pro-woman, and she would do whatever she could to advance the participation of women in the music. She wanted to open doors. But there was nothing exclusive or exclusionary about it. Women led most of the bands that played SRT concerts, or figured prominently in those that were not. But it was common to find men playing in SRT shows. Studio Red Top had goals, but it was a big tent.

The Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival had started in 1978, and Lee attended regularly. She drew inspiration from the people she met there, some of whom later came to the loft as performers and workshop leaders. One was Marian McPartland, who dropped by in 1979 to play the old piano, and strongly encourage Lee to continue her work. She responded by starting SRT’s Jazz Women in Concert series. But the party on Batterymarch ended when the owner sold the building for redevelopment, and Studio Red Top had to move.

The Studio Red Top Theater

In September 1980, Studio Red Top relocated to 367 Boylston Street in the Back Bay. Their new home included studio space, but the prize was a fourth-floor theater that seated 160. That mattered to Lee, who wanted to produce her jazz series in a concert setting, rather than in nightclubs with their inevitable distractions.

Photo of Joanne Brackeen and Cathy Lee

Joanne Brackeen and Kathy Lee, 1982. Photo by Donna Paul.

Nineteen eighty-one was a banner year for SRT. Among those on stage in the Jazz Women in Concert series were some familiar 1980s names, including vocalists Alida Rohr and Semenya McCord, saxophonist Cercie Miller, pianist Katy Roberts, and vibist Jeannette Muzima’s group, Bougainvillea. Pianist Amy Duncan, then writing jazz reviews for the Christian Science Monitor, was also on the scene.

Bassoonist Janet Grice, a musician unique on the Boston jazz landscape, earns a special mention. The spotlight rarely shines on the bassoon in jazz, to say the least. Grice made her own way in the music, at the New England Conservatory, then in Brazil, where she absorbed the rhythms and influences of that country. She brought an octet to the theater in April that balanced established Boston musicians with South Americans studying at NEC. The show sold out. In his December wrap-up of the year in jazz, Globe critic Ernie Santosuosso named this one of Boston’s best concerts of 1981. It’s worth noting that Studio Red Top gave Grice the space to do it when other presenters might have balked at booking a multi-cultural octet led by a woman bassoonist. But a gig like that was exactly right for the Studio Red Top Theater.

It wasn’t just concerts that made 1981 memorable. SRT was into education, too, running workshops during Boston Jazz Week in May, made possible by Lee’s Kansas City connections. First, the renowned composer/arranger Melba Liston led an instrumental workshop prior to an evening concert. Then Cobi Narita, the director of the Universal Jazz Coalition in New York, led a workshop on operating a jazz organization as a non-profit business. Finally, Rosetta Reitz, founder of Rosetta Records, and Geri Hamlin, founder of Elevation Records in Boston, led a session for musicians on how to produce their own recordings. Reitz, a leading authority on the women vocalists of early jazz and blues, also screened her film, “Mean Mothers: Independent Women’s Blues.”

Studio Red Top’s strong showing in 1981 was due in no small part to having the theater as a home base. But that changed abruptly. The downtown building boom, which had claimed the loft on Batterymarch Street in 1980, now came for the theater. Notice to vacate came in December. Flutist Jamie Baum’s group played a final concert, and on December 20, the theater went dark. The wreckers weren’t far behind.

Studio Red Top never had a permanent address after Boylston Street, and the Jazz Women in Concert series lived a nomadic life thereafter. Although it sharpened Cathy Lee’s acumen as a concert producer, Studio Red Top itself lost something vital. It wasn’t just concerts and other events that lost a home. It was the sense of place. It was difficult if not impossible to recreate the friendly environment of the loft and the theater without a home.

The Free Lance Wife Revue

While all this was going on, Lee continued to follow her own muse as a jazz poet. Though inspired by the rhythm and sound of jazz, by the 1980s, she wanted her words and voice to be a part of that sound. She began reading her poetry to improvised music. She told me, “I had a band, the Free Lance Wife Revue. They’d play while I’d read, things like “Charles Mingus Slipped Backstage.” It really didn’t have a set lineup, it depended on who was available. Sometimes I’d use the musicians in Bougainvillea. We did readings with Ted Joans, at the 1369 Jazz Club, and at Charlie’s Tap. He’d read my poem “Bebop Tourists in Bird’s Yard,” and proposed doing a reading together. He was living in Mali then, but he’d make a swing through Boston on his trips to the States.”

“There weren’t any other poets in Boston doing what I was doing. But there were Black artists doing spoken word performances with music, more storytelling, like Brother Blue and Valerie Stephens.”

Studio Red Top on the Concert Circuit

In 1984, Studio Red Top received funding from the City of Boston to present its Jazz Women in Concert series. They also received grants from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts & Humanities. By then, grants and the like were vital to a non-profit organization’s success. SRT used that funding to present some truly noteworthy events in the 1980s. She told me about a few.

SRT Windsong program, 1985

Windsong: The Music of Sathima Bea Benjamin, a Studio Red Top concert from 1985

In November 1985, SRT presented pianist Jill McManus, who was heavily influenced by Native American music, at the Cambridge Multi-Cultural Center. “Jill McManus was a big deal. She had an album out (Symbols of Hopi). She was another one of the people I met in Kansas City. I don’t know why more musicians haven’t picked up on Native American music and combined it with jazz. We had Tom Harrell and Joe Lovano with her. I can’t remember who we had on drums, but I do remember he was real interested in what Jill’s two Native American drummers were doing.”

In December 1987, Studio Red Top worked with vocalist Lisa Thorson in presenting a truly experimental approach to jazz accessibility—signing a jazz concert for the hearing-impaired. Two interpreters used the American Sign Language as a way to open up the music. While Thorson sang and her group played, Jody Steiner interpreted lyrics, Felice Shays danced the instrumental solos, and both moved to the music’s tempo. Then in March 1988, the Boston Globe Jazz Festival invited a few community organizations, including Studio Red Top, to participate as concert presenters for the first time. Studio Red Top staged a second concert for the hearing-impaired.

“We had Lisa singing with her trio and Jody signing it. It was almost like an interpretive dance. They played “Let’s Do It,” the Cole Porter song—“birds do it, bees do it.” The hearing-impaired people in the audience were ‘hearing’ those lyrics and laughing. And we handed out balloons, people could feel the vibrations of the music through the balloons. That audience was so responsive, and most people weren’t thinking about them as an ‘audience’ at all. I don’t know of anybody outside of the feminist community who was doing this.”

Last Call

The arts did not do well in the difficult economic climate of 1989-90, and that led directly to Lee’s decision to call it a night in May 1991. That month she told the Globe, “When we had our own space on Boylston Street, we had weekly concerts. Since 1982 we’ve had six concerts a year. Then last year we had three. This year just two. Now with all the cuts it’s becoming just impossible.” Recently she told me, “We were primarily grant-funded, and when it got to the point where social services organizations were competing for the same dollars as arts-based organizations, I decided to shut down.”

After thirteen years, Cathy Lee called it quits. But during that time she estimates that she was involved in 350 events of all types.

As a concert producer, Lee brought numerous outstanding artists to Boston—besides those already mentioned, the list includes Sathima Bea Benjamin, Marilyn Crispell, Sheila Jordan, Jeanne Lee, Barbara London and Richard Davis, Tania Maria, and Joanne Brackeen, in a major exploration of her work at the 1990 Globe Jazz Festival. But it was the local musicians who worked most often at SRT events, and benefited from the exposure. Many are still active as musicians and educators in this region and beyond, among them singers Kris Key and Semenya McCord, trumpeter Ingrid Monson, saxophonists Erica Lindsay and Cercie Miller, flutist Jamie Baum, harpist Deborah Henson-Conant, vibist Cecilia Smith, and pianists Katy Roberts and Rachel Nicolazzo (now Rachel Z).

It would have made for a happily-ever-after ending to say that Studio Red Top closed because their advocacy was no longer needed, but that wasn’t the case. Cathy Lee and I were talking about the 1369 Jazz Club, where she’d done several readings, once with Ted Joans and the Free Lance Wife Revue, in 1986. I noted that there seemed to be quite a few women on the schedule there in the late 1980s. Given that she wanted to improve employment opportunities for women in jazz, I asked if she saw that as progress. “Sure, there were women artists at the 1369, including some we worked with. And I was happy to see it. But it was still only one percent of all the jazz artists being booked for all the jazz gigs around town. I always argued that there had to be more than that.”

Cathy Lee now lives in San Antonio, and as she still hangs with the band and sits in on poem when she gets the chance. You can read one of her recent poems at Jerry Jazz Musician, scroll down to “Key of C.” Two poems, “The Magic Word is Esperanza” and “Jump Monk (Live)” were just published in the Mixtape Literary Journal. (Select the link for the Vol 2, Winter 2021 issue, Music that Moves You. “Esperanza” is on page 18 and “Monk” on page 23.) Finally, listen to her reading “Stately He,” about pianist Lowell Davidson, here on Vimeo.

Update: Jan 20, 2022

I wrote that when Cathy rented the space on Batterymarch St, it came with a piano. Not true. She sent a message to say she bought the piano and moved it in: “Actually the upright piano was not already there at 76 Batterymarch. I had to move it in on what must have been Otis model #1 freight elevator. It was basically just a floor, no walls, with a single safety plank that rose as the contraption stopped on a floor and slammed down as it passed the door. Very hazardous; I had to obtain an elevator operator license to move the piano in, and moving it out busted the thing completely. That’s why SRT 5th floor events were walkup, and probably why the “Jazz Up Your Lunch Hour” concerts didn’t catch on in the pre-fitness era of the financial district.