Byerte Johnson: a life full of music and light
By GWEN OREL
The musical selection was “Hold Back the Darkness.”
“Any of you Choralaires out there, come up here,” said Dr. Juanita Moss.
People from the congregation, dressed in black, came onstage to join in.
The late Dr. Byerte Johnson led the St. Mark’s Choralaires, a children’s choir, with Moss for many years.
The Celebration of Life for Dr. Johnson on Saturday, Jan. 12, at St. Paul Baptist Church was full of music, memory and palpable warmth. Many floral wreaths stood in front of the coffin, as did poster boards with pictures. Glossy program books, with the words to the songs, color pictures of Johnson and a recounting of her life, were handed out to those in attendance.
The church was full up to the rafters of family, friends and former students of the musician and educator who died on Jan. 2 at the age of 92.
As processionals, the Community Choir sang “We’ve Come This Far By Faith” and “I Will Trust in the Lord.”
Johnson, said Moss later, was known for her piano introduction to “We’ve Come This Far By Faith.”
The choir was joined by the piano, trumpet, drums, harp and bells, and a vocal ensemble from First Presbyterian in Brooklyn.
Using their father’s and grandfather’s Bible, the Johnson children — Margaret J. Cunningham, James E. Johnson and the Rev. Durwin F. Johnson — gave the scriptural readings.
The Rev. Bernadette Glover noted that the congregation was full of community leaders, including Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville and Mayor Robert Jackson, as well as church leaders.
“I know that many of us would love to have open mic,” Glover said. But four people had been chosen to give their reminiscences about Johnson.
Vance Frazier, who studied and worked with Johnson from “the time I was 14 until last summer, in a history class she was teaching at Kean University,” recalled a time Johnson sent him to lead workshops and play the piano with the students — when he was really a singer. “She was a great motivator,” Frazier said.
Juanita Moss recalled coming to Bloomfield to teach Biology, and how she came to know Johnson through the Sunday School at St. Marks. She came to do the supervising of the children’s choir, while Johnson led the choir itself.
“Guess who was beloved more,” she said, to a warm laugh. She recalled how the Choralaires wore red sports jackets with appliqué letters, adding “I still have mine.”
Moss talked of how Johnson would invite parents to chaperone when the children were caroling, or visiting the home of sick or senior centers. Johnson planned field trips including going to Radio City, on boat rides, trips to Florida, Bermuda and Jamaica.
“On Jan. 2, she was awakened in Glory to the voice of her Master saying, ‘Well done, my dear and faithful servant,’” Moss said.
Margaret W. Ward, Johnson’s sister, was to have spoken next, but was unable to fly in due to illness. Instead her son John Ward read her tribute. “She always had a project. If you were anywhere in her view or thoughts, you were part of it,” Ward wrote.
The Rev. Leslie Houseworth Fields from St. Marks then presented a resolution to the family extending condolences officially, and celebrating this “servant of God, who is now with One in whom she believes.”
The congregation were then asked to read the “Life reflections” about Johnson in the smaller, non-glossy program. This short essay outlined her life: how she was born in Newark in 1926, and couldn’t wait to play the piano, having her parents remove a second story window to hoist it up.
Johnson played for Sunday school as a teeneager, and later was minister of music at St. Paul Baptist (Montclair), choir director at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church (Montclair), Shiloh Baptist Church (Newark), New Zion Baptist Church (Elizabeth), Third Westminster Presbyterian Church (Elizabeth), Temple Sholom of West Essex (Cedar Grove) and Bloomfield College.
She taught piano students in Montclair from her arrival in 1957 until shortly before her death. Many of her students now lead choirs of their own throughout the Northeast. She led an annual production of Handel’s “Messiah” with her Baroque Chorale for 39 years, until she was 90. Metropolitan Opera tenor George Shirley often performed in this production.
She earned her PhD in Christian Education at 70 from Drew University.
Johnson and her husband, the late Edward J. Johnson III, ran Camp Edbert in Blairstown for five years.
Mourners were asked that instead of flowers, donations be made in memory of Byerte W. Johnson to the Montclair Child Development Center, “for the purpose of building a musical education program for young students.
The Rev. Paul Smith II then delivered the Message of Comfort. He compared Johnson to a boat that would not hug the safe harbor: “She was always taking that little boat of hers and sailing into the deep.”
“Robin’s Nest” columnist Robin Woods wrote in an email that she had worked with Johnson when Woods was director of childcare and youth services at the historic YWCA on Glenridge Avenue in the late '90s (Now Geyer Family YMCA).
“She introduced me and the children in our After School Rainbow Program to liturgical dancing,” Woods wrote. “Dr. Byerte, as I called her, was a woman of grace, intelligence and talent. She also had an iron will and did not suffer fools gladly. The children called her The Birdie and I know she flew right up to Heaven.”
Sara Singleton, formerly an ad sales manager at The Montclair Times, recalled how Johnson would come in person to advertise twice a year, one for a piano recital for her students, and once for her presentation of the “Messiah.” Singleton recalled how Johnson allowed a 9-year-old boy she thought was gifted in conducting to conduct a number, and how that might have had an impact on that child’s life.
“She was a very special person,” Singleton said. “I always thought she had such grace about her. Outer grace, but also an inner grace about her. I felt that she was good to the very core of her being. She wanted to to do for other people. She wanted to bring her love of music to to others, particularly children.”