Pianist Lafayette Carthon, Jr. has condensed his artistic philosophy to small and direct list.
"There are three things you can do with music," he said, ticking off points with his fingers. "You can worship with it. You can entertain with it. And you can teach with it."
At his weekly Gospel Musicians Shed session, he combines them all.
A musical shed is a safe space where vocalists and instrumentalists can learn techniques and repertoire, stretch out or fall flat without judgment. Carthon's workshop is only three years old, a youngster when compared to the others around town.
Alan Greene hosts a weekly session at Cebars Tavern on E. 185th St. in Euclid. Lonnie Reid has been running a musicians night at the House of Swing in South Euclid for about 20 years.
But Carthon's is unique. It's probably the only workshop that has a Christian focus.
That makes sense: Carthon grew up in the church and followed his father's lead into the ministry. Still the younger Carthon does things his way.
His church isn't housed in a traditional edifice. It's on the top floor of the Glenville Enterprises Building at 540 E. 105th St. On Mondays, starting around 9 p.m., the space becomes home to a workshop where performers explore all kinds of sacred and secular music in the name of God.
So no one blinks when a singer called "Summertime" belts out a tune or when boogie-woogie and blues riffs bounce off a wall decorated with slogans proclaiming "God reigns!" The rhythm section joins in. That's entertainment.
Worship reigned a week later, when a mother-daughter duo sang the first song of the night. As the music ebbed, Carthon led the audience in prayer, hands raised and swaying.
Then he flowed into another song, calling out chord changes between the lyrics.
"I'm lost without you," he chanted to the singers. "Go to the six... Now repeat the pattern," he told the musicians following his lead.
One by one, he pulled singers from their chairs, giving them different chants with distinct melodies. By the time the song ended, four vocalists stood in the center of the room.
That's when he turned the fugue he'd created into a lesson and a sermon.
"All these different songs in one song, that is where God is taking the body of Christ," Carthon said. "You can be doing something different over there, and I'm doing something totally different over here, but God knows how to make harmony, even though we have these separate melodies.
"That's the art of the fugue," Carthon said.
That kind of mashup – where pop and jazz turn in up in a form dating back to Bach, where classical cuddles up to contemporary -- isn't surprising from an Oberlin graduate who has played for music's most demanding artists, including Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, and Paula Abdul, just to name a few.
"Lafayette knows music and he knows how to interpret all types of music," said his mentor, Dr. William Woods, who directs the renowned Nathaniel Dett Choir at Cleveland School of the Arts.
Carthon started out on a toy piano. He learned his first song from his mother. By the time he enrolled at Cleveland School of the Arts, Carthon was playing and teaching around the city.
That's where he met Woods.
"I knew he was gifted the minute I heard him, " Woods said.
The choir director mentored the young pianist, arranging for him to represent Cleveland schools in a national competition in Miami. But Woods believes a turning point came when Carthon was 16.
"I took him to Severance to hear the great Oscar Peterson," said Woods, who has a deep love for jazz. "[Carthon] patterned his style after Peterson and Art Tatum."
That style took him in another direction. Just days after turning 20, Carthon got a phone call from the musical director of The Winans gospel quartet. Turned out the man had heard him play at gospel competition a few months earlier.
"[The musical director] said the Winans were going on tour and asked me if I wanted to play. So I was 20 when I got my break – whatever that is," he said with a chuckle.
Carthon became the principal keyboardist for one of the country's most successful crossover artists. The quartet of brothers from Detroit won six Grammys for sacred and secular music that got heavy airplay on urban radio.
From there, Carthon made a connection that led to another big job: musical director for RnB artist R. Kelly.
Carthon didn't see it as a sell out then. Nor does he now. "I believe the first thing every musician needs to do is honor God first. Then you'll have a moral center by which to approach doing music," he said.
His antidote is creating an accessible space where folks can learn the ropes and hone some values. "Otherwise, you're out there with your behind hanging out, your chest hanging out," Carthon said. "I mean, anything goes in entertainment now."
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