Lavert Stuart, Minister of Music
On any Wednesday evening, if you look toward the musician’s pit at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River, you will see the back of the pony-tailed head of Lavert Stuart. “The substitute for Berdie d’Aliberti, the regular church organist, couldn’t make it one night, so I filled in,” said Mr. Stuart. “Then when Berdie could only play on Sundays, I became the Wednesday organist.” Thus began Mr. Stuart’s 20 years plus with the church.
The son of a Cleveland police officer and a librarian who went on to become the first black insurance sales woman in Ohio, Mr. Stuart started young. “When I was a baby, my mother kept my playpen next to the upright piano in the front room. As long as she heard me picking out notes, she knew I wasn’t getting into anything else.”
The first in his family to pursue a higher education, he won a scholarship to Ohio University, where he majored in the organ. After graduation, he moved to Chicago, working for the Board of Education and playing at several churches. He also studied with Edward Mondello, the organist at the University of Chicago. “He was a wonderful teacher. I got a lot of the romantic 19th century style from him.”
Mr. Stuart was recommended to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he studied for two years. He played his graduation recital at the historic Old West Church, where the phrase “no taxation without representation” was first coined.
Mr. Stuart 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 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.”
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.”
Home to Cleveland
Coming back to Cleveland, Mr. Stuart served as the organist and choirmaster for Mt. Zion Church for the next 10 years. He also began a 25-year relationship with the Stuphen School of Music. The school experienced a renaissance under his leadership as musical director.
In 1996 he began his association with Antioch Baptist Church. “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 also very involved with the Antioch Development Corporation and its mission to develop self-sufficiency in individuals, families, and organizations in impoverished Cleveland neighborhoods.
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 Mr. Stuart.
As if his plate weren’t full enough, Mr. Stuart volunteers at the McGregor Home, a senior living facility, playing the piano in its dining hall. “One of my last adopted mothers is there,” he said. “I sit at the piano, start picking up the vibe, and play for her and her friends.”
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 [the organ] at Mt. Zion. I would go to the library and get records. I loved to hear that sound,” he said. “There’s something about the sound of the organ. It’s a light unto itself.”