Unusual cemetery tours feature jazz stars, more buried in New York
NEW YORK – Michael Cumella, dressed in a 1920s costume, placed his old Victrola record player among the gravestones and turned to the small group of tourists gathered under the towering trees of Woodlawn Cemetery.
“She was the diva of her time. The Beyoncé of her time, ”he said, erasing the leaves of the modest stone commemorating vaudeville star Nora Bayes.
The band had to lean towards the old Victrola to hear Bayes’ great voice, necessary in the days before the microphones, his biggest hit, “Over There” of 1917.
Songwriter George M. Cohan was also honored on this tour of jazz and vaudeville greats buried in Woodlawn, an old cemetery and arboretum in the heart of the Bronx. Cohan and his family rest in an imposing mausoleum with Tiffany stained glass windows.
Other stops included the resting places of jazz pioneers WC Handy and King Oliver; dancers Irene and Vernon Castle; actor Bert Williams; and, at a crossroads known as “Jazz Corner”, Duke Ellington, surrounded by Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton and others.
The tour ended at Irving Berlin’s grave, where old Victrola performed “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”.
“They called it ragtime, but it’s really proto-jazz,” says Cumella, who is a DJ and had a longtime radio show under the name Phonograph DJ MAC.
“Musicians and artists gravitated here, yearned to be here,” he said.
The great musicians of the jazz age are just one of the reasons a visit to Woodlawn can be fascinating.
Its 400 acres are the resting place of many influential people. including the authors (Herman Melville, Dorothy Parker, EL Doctorow); business leaders (JC Penney, FW Woolworth, Mrs CJ Walker); pioneers of women’s rights (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt); music stars from other eras (Celia Cruz); artists, mayors, civil rights leaders, journalists and more.
Other walking and tram tours cover themes such as Black, Irish, Italian and Women’s History. Recent events sponsored by the Woodlawn Conservancy included a tour of the Titanic passenger rest areas.
In addition, the non-denominational cemetery is a treasure trove of funerary art and shady, hilly beauty. Its trees include several specimens recognized by New York City as “Great Trees”. The cemetery may appear to be a long way from the busy city blocks that surround it.
As the Bronx’s green spaces disappear, Woodlawn is somewhat of a gem to discover compared to the more well-known Bronx Zoo and the nearby New York Botanical Garden. (The cemetery is also easily accessible by public transportation, with Woodlawn stops on the subway and Metro North Railroad.)
There are large castle-like mausoleums with statues and stained glass windows, as well as modest, flat tombstones. The cemetery and its crematorium remain active; people are still buried there.
Woodlawn was founded by a group of wealthy New Yorkers in 1863 in a location easily accessible from Manhattan. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011, “a popular final resting place for famous and powerful people”.
Cumella was an early popular music fan living in New York City when he realized that so many of his musical heroes were lying in the ground at Woodlawn. He started visiting tombstones with his friends, and soon, he says, the Conservancy helped him organize his jazz and vaudeville streetcar tours.
“I’m a big advocate of letting people see and hear what it was like to be a music listener 100 years ago,” he says.
His tour involves a little trip back in time. The Victrola that Cumella sets up at each stop plays 78 rpm records and is spring-fed. He times himself with a vintage pocket watch and amplifies his voice with an old-fashioned acoustic megaphone, like a director in an old movie.
He tries to keep alive the legacy of the artists of the time; Bayes, for example, actually had no gravestones in Woodlawn until Cumella led an effort that earned him one in 2018.
Lauren Hinton, who teaches second year in New York City, recently toured and hopes to incorporate music and musicians into her classes.
“We learned to tap dance last year,” she says, noting that Harold Nicholas, half of the famous Nicholas Brothers dancing couple, is buried in an unmarked grave in Woodlawn. Efforts are underway to buy him a tombstone.
“It’s important that people know about the past so that they (artists) don’t fall into the dark,” she said.
Also on the cart were Nancy Gerstman and Bruce Goldstein, Manhattan filmmakers.
“I loved hearing the music and putting all these people in context. People I wouldn’t have known, and now I want to know more about them, ”Gerstman said.
“There are so many clues about the people at the headstones,” Goldstein added. For example, he said, he hadn’t known until he saw the family gravestones that Berlin’s toddler son, Irving Jr., died of age. a month, Christmas Day 1928. “That tells you a lot about them.”
Woodlawn is a wealth of cultural history, he said, “It’s one of New York’s wonders.”