Last night I had the chance to see the graves of some jazz greats and then hear their music played live. I took the 4 train to the end of the line to hear the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra play a free concert in Woodlawn Cemetery. Wynton Marsalis, the leader of the Orchestra, talked about the close ties between music and funerals in his hometown New Orleans. Music is an integral part of saying goodbye to the dead and also celebrating life and finding a way to move forward.
The music started with a traditional jazz number: “Dippermouth Blues” recorded by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1923.
The next song was “St. Louis Blues”, composed by W.C. Handy. Before starting the song, Marsalis said “W.C. Handy is here and so is his music . . . Maybe we can wake him up . . because people like their music”
The third song, “Concerto for Cootie” was by one of the best known jazz musicians in Woodlawn–Duke Ellington. Ellington wrote it to highlight one of his trumpeters, Charles Cootie Williams, who is also buried at Woodlawn.
Miles Davis, who died in 1991, is resting near Duke Ellington, in an area called “Jazz Corner”. For some reason, instead of being buried, he has a sarcophagus behind a large black granite monument. After the title was given to him by the Knights of Malta, he insisted on being called “Sir”.
The Jazz Orchestra played “Milestones”, an example of modal jazz composed by Davis and recorded in 1958.
Lionel Hampton is also in “Jazz Corner”. He and his wife Gladys have simple side by side tombstones with a larger piece behind them which reads “Hampton Flying Home”. So it was very appropriate that Wynton Marsalis selected the song “Flying Home” for the orchestra to play. In 1942 Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra recorded “Flying Home” featuring a tenor sax solo by 18 year old Illinois Jacquet. Jacquet has been at Woodlawn since 2004. Last night, Walter Blanding played Jacquet’s solo.
The song “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins was next. Wynton Marsalis quoted Hawkins who said in an interview in 1956 that Thelonious Monk had asked him how it was that everyone loved “Body and Soul”. Monk told Hawkins he didn’t understand how people went for it, because people like melody.
Next was another Duke Ellington song: “Black Beauty”, a song that Duke Ellington wrote for Florence Mills. A parade of thousands made its way from Harlem to the cemetery and rose petals were dropped from an airplane as she was buried at Woodlawn in 1927.
There were also tributes to Milt Jackson, Max Roach (“The Drum Also Waltzes”) and Jackie Maclean (“Appointment in Ghana”)
And finally, a tribute to Duke Ellington: “Second Line” from the “New Orleans Suite”.
The suite was commissioned by festival producer, George Wein, for the 1970 New Orleans Jazz Festival. When Wein’s wife Joyce passed away in 2005, George hired stone carver Simon Verity to create a memorial for both of them. It is in Woodlawn, too–next to Max Roach and just up a ways from Jazz Corner. Among the characters in the relief is George playing the piano.
Throughout the evening, Marsalis said the musicians and composers buried around us were listening to the concert. He thought that some of them might be more critical than others. But he was sure that they were going to have a party once we all left.