When one Jazz Icon decided to pay his last respects to another, it created a domino effect that created the World’s Greatest Eternal Jam Session.
With its verdant landscaping full of flowering trees the Woodlawn Cemetery in the New York City’s North Bronx is an island of green in a concrete sea. Over 300,000 people are buried here, including the graves of many of NYC’s elite. Household names such as Woolworth, Pulitzer, and Julliard and even songwriter Irving Berlin. But probably the most famous section of Woodlawn is an area that came to be known as Jazz Corner.
Like a lot of Jazz music, the corner began as improvisation and grew from there. It all started when Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington passed away in 1974. He had chosen his gravesite several years prior on a then-vacant corner in the Park’s southwest side. He had chosen the area in part because it was near the resting places of songstress Florence Mills whom Ellington had immortalized in the song “Black Beauty,” and W.C. Handy considered one of the founders of Jazz and another icon Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.
Ellington was the most prolific songwriter the genre has ever known writing such classics as “Take the A train,” “Sophisticated Ladies,” “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” and my personal favorite “I’m beginning to see the light.” Ellington was held in such veneration by his peers that when Jazz giant Miles Davis died in 1991, he asked to be buried by Ellington.
This act was the first notes in what would become an afterlife jam session. Then bandleader and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton was buried next to Ellington and Davis in 2002 vocalist Celia Cruz in 2003, Saxophone great John Baptist Illinois Jacquet followed in 2004, Saxophonist Jackie McLean in 2006 and drummer Max Roach in 2009. You have yourself, one fantastic band.
The corner is one of the most visited areas in any of NYC’s many resting places. The number of visitors has gotten so large that Woodlawn now has Jazz concerts in the summer. The many greats who slumber here would be pleased.