By Ed Staskus
On any Wednesday evening for the past two decades-and-more whenever anyone looked toward the musician’s pit to the right of the reader’s platform at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River they would have seen, as they still see today, the back of the pony-tailed head of Lavert Stuart.
What they wouldn’t have seen is that serendipity always rewards the prepared. Mr. Stuart has had his fingers on a keyboard from the time he could stand up in a crib. He was ready for the Schantz organ at the Rocky River church
“The substitute for Berdie d’Aliberti, the regular organist at the church, couldn’t make it one night, so I filled in,” said Lavert Stuart. “Then when Berdie’s teaching duties at Baldwin Wallace University got so she could only play on Sundays I became the Wednesday organist, and now we’re looking at more than 25 years.”
What Mr. Stuart didn’t say was that he has been a church musician for almost 50 years, since he started at Cleveland’s Mount Zion Congregational Church in 1965. In the years since he has performed as a pianist and organist at many Protestant churches, from the Historic First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, to the Cathedral de St. Trinity in Port au Prince, Haiti.
Although not a member of the Rocky River church he says he is a Christian Scientist “by osmosis”.
The son of a Cleveland policeman, who was cousin to Carl and Louis Stokes, noted Ohio politicians, and a librarian who went on to become the first black insurance saleswoman in Ohio, Mr. Stuart started small.
“When I was a baby my mother kept my playpen next to the upright piano in the front room. It was so she would know where I was. As long as she heard me picking out notes she knew I wasn’t getting into anything else.”
Mr. Stuart grew up in the Glenville neighborhood at a time when it was known as the Gold Coast, crowded with immigrants, delis, clubs, department stores, and churches. He attended Empire Junior High and John Adams High School.
The first in his family to pursue a higher education, he won a scholarship to Ohio University, where he majored in organ. After graduation he moved to Chicago, working for the Board of Education, and playing at several churches, including Salem Lutheran, founded in 1868 by Swedish immigrants. While there he studied with Edward Mondello, the University Organist at the University of Chicago.
“He was a wonderful teacher. I got a lot of the romantic 19th century style from him, playing in the Rockefeller Chapel.”
After being recommended for the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, he studied there for two years. He was the musical director at the First Congregational Church in Weston and later played his graduation recital at the historic Old West Church, where the phrase “no taxation without representation” was first coined.
While living in Boston he helped coordinate the creation of the 1.6 mile Black Heritage Trail, which winds through the Beacon Hill neighborhood and ends at the African Meeting House, the oldest surviving black church in America.
“The first person to die in the American Revolution was a black man,” Mr. Stuart points out. “It was a terrible time.”
Even in 1976, during the Bicentennial celebrations in Boston, when a man at an anti-busing rally tried to kill an African-American bystander with the pointed pole end of an American flag, captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.
“I was only a few steps away from that incident when it happened.”
Thirty-five years later Boston City Council cited Lavert Stuart with a proclamation honoring his “spiritual leadership through music ministry and commitment to developing interest and knowledge in Black heritage and culture.”
Having finished his studies he returned to live in Cleveland.
“It was my experience with institutions, and the sense of history in Boston, which made me interested in the organizations and history that brought me to where I was, and who I was.”
He returned to Mt. Zion Church, serving as their organist and choirmaster for the next ten years, as well as serving as supply organist for several other churches and chapels. He began a 25-year relationship with the Stuphen School of Music, serving as their musical director. The school experienced a renaissance under his leadership.
In 1996 he began his long association with Antioch Baptist Church as their organist for the Sanctuary and Gospel Choirs.
“His ministry of music has been a blessing to me,” said the Reverend Marvin McMickle of the Antioch Church. ”Lavert Stuart has been our local version of the Music Man.”
Mr. Stuart is a long-time supporter of the Antioch Development Corporation, whose mission it is to develop personal and collective self-sufficiency within individuals, families, and organizations throughout impoverished neighborhoods of Greater Cleveland.
“Sometimes you don’t realize the things people have to go through.”
As well as a career in classical, sacred music, Mr. Stuart has had a secular career in jazz and popular music. He got his start at the New England Conservatory under the aegis of Gunther Schuller, a composer, conductor, and performer who was then the president of the music school.
“He really put jazz on the map there,” said Lavert Stuart.
In 1973 Gunther Schuller won a Grammy Award with his Ragtime Ensemble.
In the late 1980s Mr. Stuart was the pianist at the Sweet Water Café in downtown Cleveland, and for more than ten years played three nights a week at Mantell’s in the Radisson in Willoughby.
“They had a grand piano on a platform in the shape of a grand piano.”
As well as playing jazz standards at clubs and restaurants, he has worked as a conductor-pianist for theater productions at both Karamu and the Ensemble Theater. He toured with Karamu when its production of ‘Langston’ performed at Lincoln Center in New York City.
He was the featured pianist in Philip Hayes Dean’s biographical play ‘Paul Robeson’.
“I always wanted to do something on a cruise ship, too,” he said, laughing. “Maybe in a next life I’ll be able to do that.”
As if his plate weren’t full enough, Mr. Stuart volunteers at the McGregor Home, a senior living facility near University Circle, playing the piano in their dining hall.
“One of my last adopted mothers is there,” he said. “She was my car mom when I was a boy, driving me home from church. I sit at the piano, start picking up the vibe, and play for her and her friends. It adds some quality to their lives, which is important, because it’s the little things that count.”
The Reverend Marvin McMickle remembers Mr. Stuart doing the same for his mother. “He would take a keyboard into my mother’s room and play the hymns of the church as she lay in her bed in a nursing home. I believe she is looking on from glory today and sharing in his musical celebration.”
Every Wednesday Lavert Stuart plays a prelude, accompanies three hymns, and finishes with a postlude at the Testimony Meeting at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River. Those who stay for the postlude are sometimes treated to his signature piece, the Carillon de Westminster, written for the organ by the French composer Louis Vierne as an embellishment on the chimes played from the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster.
After nearly two-and-a-half score years the minister of music continues to play organs with consummate skill and enthusiasm.
“It all started when I was a teenager and heard it at Mt. Zion. I would go to the library and get records. I loved to hear that sound,” he said.
For many centuries the organ has been known as ‘the king of instruments’.
“There’s something about the sound of the organ. It’s a light unto itself.”