By Ed Staskus
Abner Vance first spied Odessa Ballard through a second-floor window at the Majestic Hotel. She was fiddling with her skirt standing waiting on the corner of Central Avenue and East 55th Street for the CTS streetcar. It was a sunny summer day. Odessa did pantry work and was on her way home. He spotted her from behind his venetian blinds.
“I had just gotten back from Woodland Cemetery, where I sometimes did patrols on foot, which was whenever my sergeant thought there was some small thing I did he didn’t care for.” It was how Abner came to be known as Gravedigger Vance. “She was a sight for sore eyes and my sore feet. I put my Colt Positive away in the dresser drawer and stepped outside.”
During the winter the Majestic let Abner, who was a policeman, have a small room on the 55th side of the hotel. Whenever it got below zero, he ducked into it for ten fifteen minutes to warm up. He helped the house man when help was needed. His room was a half-dozen steps from a secret door beside the drug store in case anything bad happened. After a few years he kept the room in the summer, too. The Majestic was called the apartments, but it was a hotel. Abner started going there when he was in his early 20s and the jazz club off the lobby was called the Furnace Room.
“Meeting your mother was a lot like jazz, it was improvised,” he told his son Lavert. “That was it, go ahead and see what happens.” The club had dancers and crooners and bands that came through Cleveland on tour. The restaurant serving food, to the club and rooms, was Mammy Louise’s Barbeque Café. Their house specialty was braised beef short ribs in gravy. The ribs were like soul music in your mouth.
Abner was from a small town in the Florida Panhandle and never thought twice about eating chicken fried steak, candied sweet potatoes, and cheesy grits. He ran it off when he was a boy. He walked it off when he was a cop.
“We went to Mammy Louise’s for dinner and then next door to the club,” he said. “The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were there the night we stepped out. They were an all-girl all-color orchestra. ‘Slick Chicks and Hot Licks’ was what it said on the billboard outside the doors. They raised the roof and we kicked up our heels, dancing up a storm.”
The Furnace Room became Elmer Waxman’s Ubangi Club, but when Abner first took Lavert there in the 1950s, when he was twelve years-old, it was the Rose Room Cocktail Lounge. Before the Hough riots and Glenville shoot-outs in the 1960s, even though it was already mostly a colored neighborhood, the audiences were every which way. Judges and politicians from downtown brought their wives to the Rose Room. It was the black and tan saloon scene. It was its own world in the nighttime. But by then no one danced to jazz anymore. That had already changed. It wasn’t that jazz changed, even though it had. There was a new music and new dancers in town.
When Abner applied to the Cleveland Police Department after high school the merit system broke down, like it always did, because he was a Negro. They told him he had poor eyesight, even though he didn’t start wearing glasses until he was in his 70s, almost fifty years after joining the force. He had to ask for help from his ward leader to have the rejection overruled.
He hunted bootleggers in the 1930s, before they gave him his own beat. It was dangerous work. They carried more guns than the police. He had to prove himself. “You could always tell whether the moonshine was good if you set it on fire and blue flames were what you saw. That’s when you knew it wouldn’t make you go blind.”
There weren’t many men of color on the police force, and most of those who made the department had to get certification from outside doctors to get past the official exam of the police doctor. Jim Crow was sneakier in the North than it was in the South. The department kept separate eligibility lists, so when one Negro died, resigned, or retired, his replacement might or might not be another Negro. When a white policeman died, his replacement was always another white man.
Duke Jenkins and his group were the house band at the Majestic. They were the first jazz band Lavert ever heard. Every Tuesday night was Cha Cha Night and on Thursdays Mambo Night was the hot ticket. But the big attraction was the before dawn Blue Monday Party.
“People lined up to get into those jam sessions. Sometimes you couldn’t even get a seat. All the players, the girl singers, the quartets, entertainers like Erroll Garner and Arthur Prysock and Nancy Wilson, they’d be there performing. People went crazy when Nancy Wilson was there because she was so good,” Abner said.
Lavert stayed overnight with his father at the Majestic on Sundays and went to the Blue Monday parties with him when they got going, which was at five in the morning. Afterwards Abner drove his son to school. If they stayed too late at the jam session, soaking up the sounds, he would call and ask for a squad car to race Lavert to school, its lights flashing and siren whooping.
“Eyes lit up like flashbulbs on a camera whenever that happened,” Lavert said.
There were only a handful of Cleveland hotels listed in the Negro Green Book. The Majestic was one of them. All the rooms had two beds and a radio on every bedstand, although Abner only had one bed. He had the other one removed so Lavert and he could have a table to eat at on Sunday nights. Lavert slept on a folding rollaway his father kept in the closet.
When he was a baby, his mother kept his playpen next to the upright piano in the front room. It was so she would know where he was. So long as she heard him picking out notes she knew he wasn’t getting into trouble. When he was in third grade, he found out they had music classes at his grade school. He was eight years old.
“I’d like to do that,” he told his mother. He lived with her and his grandparents. It was a surprise to all of them. “That’s just what my place was,” he said. But he found out even the status quo can change.
He put his name down for piano lessons at the Miles Standish School. He learned to play a Chopin waltz sitting beneath a painting of Miles Standish, after who the school was named. The portrait was of a soldier accompanying the Pilgrims when they came to the New World. In the painting he wore armor and carried a matchlock rifle. He didn’t look like he knew a piano from a peace pipe.
Lavert played the organ and piano because his grandmother wanted him to. She was the matriarch of the family and conservative about everything under the sun. She didn’t believe in bell house music. She was strict about church music, too, so she had a man, who was the organist at the New Liberty Hill Baptist Church, come to their house and give him lessons. Years later, when he was older, Lavert played there himself.
Paul John was the man who came to their house. He worked in the steel mills in the Flats. He was a friend of Lavert’s’s grandfather, who sang in the male chorus in the mill that Paul John led on a Salvation Army five rank pipe organ. The chorus went to Detroit and Pittsburgh to perform on holidays.
“Mr. John could play Rachmaninoff, and all, but he was ahead of his time, so he had to give lessons,” Abner told his son. “That was the incentive for him when he came to your mother’s house and got you started. You put food on his table.”
Lavert played sacred music for most of his life and jazz music the rest of the time. The sacred music came from his mother and grandmother, and the jazz music came from his father, who took him to uptown clubs like the Tijuana Café Society.
“When the Four Sounds came to audition at the Tijuana, they were just re-opening, and they didn’t even have a piano on the stage. It was in the corner. I helped them lift it up on the stage to do the audition,” Abner said. He was a tall strong man. “They had been the Four Sounds until they asked me to talk to the saxophone player one night. He had a habit of carrying a gun in his horn case. He wouldn’t listen to a lick of sense. When he said he didn’t want to leave it behind, they finally left the saxophone out and became the Three Sounds.”
Most days anybody walking around the neighborhood could hear a horn through an open window down the street from Doan Square, where all the action was. It was a jazz musician reading his lines in the afternoon. Hotels weren’t open to musicians of color, so they stayed in rooming houses. They minded their own business.
“You couldn’t even go to the Five and Dime store and have a quiet lunch,” Lavert said.
His grandmother went to buy a hat one Saturday and when she tried it on, she had to buy it. She had put it on her head to see if it fit and when a salesclerk saw her, she had to pay for it. His grandfather was a mulatto from Cuba. Whenever a white man came to their house, selling something, or on some errand, his grandfather was polite, but as soon as the white man left and was out of earshot he would spit and call the man a cracker.
They lived on Pierpont Avenue in Glenville, what everyone called the Gold Coast, before Glenville fell apart and the Gold Coast moved to Lakewood in the 1960s. His grandmother died in 1968 and his mother sold the house, moving to Lost Nation Road. His grandfather moved into a rented room. By then Lavert had finished studies at the Boston Conservatory and was playing the big organ at the Christian Science Mother Church. In the summer he played piano at jazz clubs in Provincetown and Martha’s Vineyard.
When he was a boy Glenville was crowded with immigrants, Negroes, and Jews. There were orthodox Jews all over the place. He thought they were Santa Claus’s in black suits. There were churches for men of faith, like the Cory United Methodist Church, which had been the Park Synagogue, and the Abyssinia Baptist Church, which had also been a synagogue. There were clubs, movie houses, and department stores.
There were mom and pop restaurants run by the Jews. There were no bad sandwich shops in Glenville, but Abner always ate at Pirkle’s Deli. He said if he ever stumbled on a good-looking Jewish woman from his window at the Majestic, he was going to track her down so he could get up Sunday mornings and stroll out to the deli with her.
“Those folks never invented anything so fine as deli food,” he said. “The corned beef at Pirkle’s is as tender as a young lady’s leg.”
Lavert’s father and mother were never together as a family. “There were two different families, his and ours,” he said. Abner and Odessa had their room at the Majestic some nights, but in later years she stayed away. She felt he betrayed her. “My father said he wanted to marry my mother, and she thought he was going to divorce his wife, but he never did that.” Over time she had a hard time seeing Abner as a soul mate.
“Your mother shot a hole in my soul,” Abner said.
Lavert lived with his mother and after she married another man, she bore two more boys who became his brothers, the boys sharing her. He became Lavert Stuart. Abner came to their house many times, often in his police car after he was promoted. He parked in the driveway for everybody to see. It wasn’t as if they were cut off from him.
He was one of the first colored farmers in Twinsburg, where he kept fowl and pigs. Every November the family got a turkey for Thanksgiving. He had a smokehouse, too, and when time came to slaughter some of the fattening pigs, he would do it himself. He castrated the males a month beforehand. The family had bacon and ham all winter and into the spring.
Abner picked Lavert up in his Ford pick-up on Friday and Saturday nights to help him forage for feed. The father and teenager drove up and down Euclid Avenue, on the south side of Glenville, from E. 110th to E. 95th Street, picking up refuse from barrels and dumpsters behind the clubs and restaurants on the strip. Abner stuck his gloved hands into the slop and nosed around for metal and glass before filling up his barrels.
“Pigs will eat anything you give them. They can be stink and filth, even though their sausages smell great. I would rather cut myself than injure my animals.” The Hebrew meaning of Abner is “father of light.” He was a good father to his pigs.
When their barrels were full, they drove to the farm. The pigs would hear the truck coming and know it was time to eat. “They started doing what pigs do, getting feisty and greedy. He dumped the food in the trough, let them loose, and they would go at it,” Lavert said. That was why Abner picked through the fruit vegetables scraps of meat greasy bits and pieces, because they would have cut themselves, biting into anything.
Lavert Stuart stopped gleaning garbage when his mother told him he had to be careful about his hands. She didn’t want him hurting them, hurting his chances. Odessa wanted him to go places, better places than scrounging for leftovers behind eateries in the middle of the night.
He learned more sacred music and less blue notes after his mother put him in Empire High. Eleanor Bishop, his music teacher, had been there since the school opened. She had a trim hourglass figure and the only thing that gave her away was that she wore old lady comforters. But she was spry and walked fast. She could catch bad boys anytime she wanted to.
She was an old maid because she had become a teacher long ago and wasn’t supposed to marry, and by the time the times changed it was too late for her. One afternoon Lavert found a dedicatory book for Empire High, which was built in 1915. He leafed through it. He took it to her office.
“I see your name in this book, and your picture,” he said.
She looked at him.
“Is this you?”
“But you’re old, not like this.”
“Everybody was once new,” she said, her face pinched. Lavert was sure she wanted to pinch him, hard, like she did when he hit a wrong note. But she didn’t put any concern to what he said. She made sure he practiced faithfully and later helped him get a scholarship to Ohio University, where he studied the organ. After he graduated, he never lived in Glenville again.
He lived in Chicago, New York, and Boston. He learned to live alone, like Duke Ellington, who said music was a mistress. He lived in his own world, detached and determined, so he could practice. He had friends who kept him in tune to the here and now, but on weekend nights he didn’t go anywhere. He had to be ready for Sunday services. That kept him out of wrongdoing. He tried mischief a few times but decided it’s bad when you’re not feeling well in a church after a hard Saturday night. He decided he had to do it his way.
He didn’t see much of his mother, who moved to California to live with one of his brothers, who had become a minister, and saw his father only when he was passing through the Midwest. They visited and had lunch at one or another deli in Cleveland Heights, where all the Jews had moved. Pirkle’s Deli had burned down.
Abner was an industrious man his whole life. When he retired and his lawful wife passed on, he bought the last commercial building, next to Whitmore’s Bar-B-Q, on Kinsman Road where it starts to snake up into Shaker Heights. It was a barbershop and beauty salon side-by-side. He lived upstairs in a one-bedroom apartment. He could have lived in a house, since he owned five of them, but didn’t want to.
“I don’t want to get too comfortable because I may not be here long,” he said. His apartment had one bedroom and one bathroom. It had one table with two chairs, one sofa, and one half-empty closet. It looked like no one lived there. He was becoming his own gravedigger.
“He had been industrious but changed into a careless custodian of his properties. He got short stingy and mean. He patchworked instead of getting things done the best way, so everything slowly deteriorated. He wasn’t willing to pay the price to get things done the right way. When a man has that mindset, he ends up losing more money than he’s spent,” Lavert said.
Abner lost his eyesight when he was visiting Texas. He stepped on a splinter and after a few days his big toe got infected. He had surgery for it, but in the end, they had to amputate the toe. Afterwards he lost feeling in his leg. While he was still in the hospital convalescing, he woke up one morning and had gone blind. He stayed in Texas for a month, and when he came back, he moved in with Lavert’s sister on the other side of the family, who took care of him.
He never recovered his sight, which was hard on him because he had always lived by his senses. The biggest problem, though, were the visions and nightmares he suffered, which were part of the side effects from the medication he was taking. He had them at night when he went to bed. He heard things and saw craziness and wasn’t able to sleep.
Lavert never got his father and mother together, even when Abner was dying, and Lavert was staying with him, playing old jazz records. His father listened to music all day long towards the end. He stopped sleeping and eating, drinking cold lemonade, instead. The last time his mother visited Cleveland Abner was near death. Lavert took her to places in Glenville, some that were still there and others that weren’t anymore, trying to get her to go to the facility on Rockside Road where his father was.
She fought him all the way, and in the end wouldn’t go. Odessa just didn’t want anything to do with Abner. “That’s all over, a long time ago,” she said, shaking her head.
Abner and Odessa did what they had to do from beginning to end. “I was just a cameo in the business they had between themselves,” Lavert said. After his father died there was nothing left to do anymore about the torn seam in the family fabric. He said goodbye to his mother, who went back to California. Abner Vance left behind six children by his wife Amanda, 11 grandchildren, and 18 great grandchildren. The rest didn’t make the cut.
When he moved back to Cleveland, Lavert Stuart played sacred organ music three seasons of the year. But in the summer, he played jazz and popular tunes in clubs on Cape Cod. On Sunday mornings when the weather was good, he brewed a pot of strong coffee and warmed up a plate of spiced buns. On his balcony sitting in the light and warmth of the rising sun, he looked for what was behind the blue brightness, on the blue note side of the sky.
A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist Magazine.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”