To spend time at a cemetery, one would expect to have reflection which could cause feelings of both sadness and joy.
But you wouldn't expect to find the subject of jazz mixed in with those emotional elements in a environment of solitude.
Well, those two subjects came together the recent Sunday afternoon of April 28th at Woodlawn Cemetery. In honor of Jazz Appreciation Month, the Woodlawn Conservancy in partnership with the Duke Ellington Society curated a jazz tour of the cemetery. In a event called 'Encore! A Jazz Revival,' the purpose of the tour was to connect families, colleagues, and fans via the jazz residents there.
Woodlawn Cemetery is a 400 acre non-sectarian cemetery located in the Bronx, New York. It's the final resting place for hundreds of thousands individuals. Those buried there are from many walks of life, ranging from everyday private citizens to individuals from various professional fields in life.
It is also the final resting place to dozens of individuals from the world of jazz. Some of the artists there include, Celia Cruz, Sonny Greer, Coleman Hawkins, King Oliver and Cootie Williams. This tour included a bus tour thru the cemetery traveling to the many grave sites. The organizers had people at the various sites to comment on that particular artist. The individuals posted at the graves were former colleagues, experts or fans of that jazz artist.
Because over eighty jazz lovers showed up, the Bronx Tourism Council Trolley had to make two pick up trips. The first and major stop made in the cemetery was a area that could be described as a jazz club or jazz corner. This was at the intersection of Heather and Knollwood Avenues which has the largest amount of jazz musicians in Woodlawn.
It is here where you can find Duke Ellington's four family plot gravesite. To the left of Duke is the gravestone of Lionel Hampton and his wife Gladys. To the right of Duke, is the large gravestone of Miles Davis. Across from Davis is another large gravestone which is the final resting place of Illinois Jacquet. Up the hill from this saxophonist is the gravesite of another saxophonist-alto player Jackie Mclean. Between Jacquet and Mclean is the gravesite of the famous Lindy Hopper dancer Frankie Manning. He was famous for burning up the dance floor at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem during the big band era. A few feet away from Jackie Mclean is the final resting place of drummer Max Roach. A short walk down the road is the site of dancer Harold Nicholas.
Carol Scherick, the former manager of the late Illinois Jacquet was posted at his site and spoke foldly of his love of playing the tenor saxophone. She told the crowds who stopped by that Illinois was trying to spread the love of music and love in general thru his playing. The vistors who were admiring his large lovely tombstone were treated to Illinois's music as Mrs. Scherick had a portable music device playing his recordings.
Rigmor Newman Nicholas, wife of the late great tap dancer Harold Nicholas stood at this unmarked site and shared stories. It turns out that the Nicholas Brother's parents were both singers and Harold's dream was to be a singer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. But Duke already had a singer and while the brothers performed their dance act with the band in clubs, the closest Harold came to being in the orchestra was one night when he filled in for the drummer who was out. Harold and his brother Fayard would go to become world famous as 'The Nicholas Brothers' dance team. After visting Harold's site, one couple decided to make the long trek to King Oliver's grave further out in the cemetery.
Many gather around the large lovely black tombstone of Miles Davis. It's a lovely tombstone and a few were able to sit down on the side of it. The bus tour guide had pointed out that Miles had bought this spot so he could be across from the site of Duke Ellington, a person he greatly admired. Among the crowd, the conversations shifted from Miles to other subjects. Some discovered that they grew up in the same areas of Harlem. They ended up discussing the clubs and restaurants in Harlem. Sonny Allen who is a veteran Lindy Hopper dancer spoke of his experiences as a singer as well as dancing. Also at the Davis site was Rudy Lawless, a local veteran jazz drummer. Lawless who spoke at the sites of the late drummers Sonny Greer and Max Roach, shared stories of growing up in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem. He spoke of his friendships of those from the neighborhood such as Jackie Mclean, Bud Powell, Richie Powell and Sonny Rollins. Lawless also talked about another friend, the late television reporter Gil Noble. He was another childhood friend who started out as a piano player in the style of Erroll Garner before going into the field of news reporting. Lawless also talked of playing drums in a trio led by the late pianist Hazel Scott. She at one time was married to the late Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. One woman in the group was so impressed by Lawless personal stories that she recommended a book called, 'This Was Harlem' by Jervis Anderson. ( I provided the pen and paper so he could write it down and look online to purchase it.)
There was a lot of joy being spread within the crowd at the moment. I couldn't help thinking that this large beautiful tombstone was indirectly showing a very different side of Miles Davis. The fact is that he purchased a very visible gravesite in a public place where people could stop and reminisce is very amazing. The reason being is that Miles had always stated that he didn't look back at the past. It's also on public record that Miles had always hated funerals services to the point where he avoided them like the plague. In his autobiography, Miles confirms that outside of services for his late parents, the only funeral he attended was that of the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix and he was reluctant about going to that one. His public comments would make you figure that Miles would of requested to be cremated and have his ashes scattered at some undisclosed location known only to his family and a few close friends.
Any event dealing with the subject of jazz would be incomplete without live music involved. At the end of the tour, everyone was treated to a concert by The Paul West Trio, which was held inside the Woodlawn Chapel. Bassist Paul West led his group thru the tunes of the musicans who were laid to rest at Woodlawn. They covered Miles Davis's 'All Blues' and Duke Ellington's 'Satin Doll.' Trombonist Art Barron came on stage for Ellington's 'Take the A Train' and 'Mood Indigo.' The band played them so lively that many of the senior citizens in the audience got up and danced thru both tunes. In the tour, Art Barron had spoken at the gravesite of the late trombonist Sandy Williams.
The concert closed out with jazz vocalist Antoinette Montaque playing tribute to the late singer Florence Mills. Ms. Montaque sang solo with a guitar accompaniment only for the tune, 'I'm Just A Little Blackbird.' Florence Mills was a popular singer during the Harlem Renaissance and Ms. Montaque had spoken at her gravesite during the tour.
The event turned out to be very enlightening and fun. Woodlawn Cemetery is a registered historic landmark and they have monthly events scheduled around various areas of interest. They can be contacted via www.woodlawnconservancy.com
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