Last week, my grandfather passed away at the age of ninety-two. An orphan, my grandfather traveled from Puerto Rico to the United States when he was only fourteen years old. Once in the United States, he joined other immigrants in government work projects that had him enduring the harsh winters of Montana and Idaho. A few years later, he enlisted in the armed services and fought honorably in World War II, where he was wounded in battle. Even though he took a bullet in the leg, which caused him to walk with a limp, he still managed to spend the next thirty-seven years delivering mail for the US Postal Service in Manhattan. And after that, when most people would have happily retired, he got a job as a courier on Wall Street, where he worked until he was eighty years old. In fact, he probably would have held that job even longer but his family begged his employer to force him into retirement!
I grew up in Florida, and since my grandfather lived in Bronx, NY, I only saw him a few times during my childhood. And sadly, it wasn't until the past ten years or so that I really began to learn about his life. I can honestly say, though, that with each visit I'd return home more humbled by his accomplishments. While it's sad to see him go, he certainly led a long full life, and I couldn't be more proud to have him as my grandfather.
I spent the night before my grandfather's funeral at his apartment in Bronx, NY (photo of his apartment building is shown below). My aunt and my grandfather's wife of sixty-two years were also there (my father was the product of my grandfather's brief first marriage). While discussing the funeral arrangements, my aunt asked if I knew anything about Woodlawn Cemetery, the location of my grandfather's burial. I didn't know anything about the cemetery at that point so my aunt said, "Oh, you'll really like it. There are a lot of famous jazz musicians buried there."
Before I continue, let me set the stage. My aunt is a truly wonderful person who has dedicated her life to her family and to her church, where she serves as a minister. I think the world of her, but I also know that she and the rest of my family don't exactly have a lot of expertise when it comes jazz. So, I simply nodded and gave little thought to her description of Woodlawn Cemetery as a major jazz destination. That is, until she said, "Miles Davis is buried just down the hill from your grandfather's plot." I couldn't believe it. Miles Davis, the person most responsible for my love of jazz, is buried in the same cemetery as my grandfather?!
I immediately went online and learned that Woodlawn Cemetery is the burial site of many of New York's famous entertainers, politicians, and business people. For example, Woodlawn is the final resting site for Fierello La Guardia, Rowland Macy, Franklin Woolworth, James Cash Penney, Augustus Juilliard, Herman Melville, Joseph Pulitzer, Celia Cruz, and Irving Berlin. And in the list of jazz musicians we have Miles Davis, Max Roach, Joseph "King" Oliver, Jean Baptiste "Illinois" Jacquet, Charles "Cootie" Williams, W.C. Handy, Lionel Hampton, Coleman Hawkins, Milt Jackson, Jackie McLean, and Duke Ellington... just to name a few!
THE FUNERAL AND BURIAL SITE
My grandfather had requested a simple military funeral, which took place in a small chapel at Woodlawn Cemetery. The ceremony ended with the playing of "Taps" (by an actual trumpeter, not a recording) and the folding of an American flag. This was the first funeral I've ever attended, and while I'm sure they are all emotional, the presentation of the flag to my grandfather's wife, and the brief but powerful dedication spoken by the serviceman, was perhaps the most moving event I've ever experienced.
After the ceremony, we drove from the chapel to the burial site, which was located about a mile away. As we twisted through the narrow cemetery roads, I looked around hoping to see Miles Davis' tombstone or that of any of the other legendary jazz musicians. We passed by La Guardia's tombstone and the large Juilliard mausoleum, but I didn't see any jazz musicians. Oh well. Obviously I wasn't here to sight see. I was here for my grandfather, and I figured I'd just have to wait until my next visit to see some of the jazz musicians.
When we finally reached my grandfather's burial site, I stepped out of the car and stood with the rest of the family as we waited for everyone to arrive. I looked at the casket, perched above the freshly dug grave, and then slowly turned my head to towards the neighboring tombstones. And that's when I saw a thick slab of black granite with light gray letters that read "MAX ROACH." Max Roach, one of the most important and influential jazz drummers of all time, a man who has played and recorded with virtually every legendary jazz musician including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and EVERYONE ELSE, was buried directly to the right of my grandfather's casket.
After the final prayers were read, I looked around a bit more and noticed what had to be the back of Miles Davis' tombstone, which I recognized from a photo I saw online the previous night. I walked down to the large tombstone and was pleasantly surprised to pass the grave of legendary jazz saxophonist, Illinois Jacquet, on my way down. The following photo shows Miles Davis on the left, Illinois Jacquet on the right, and my grandfather's burial site just up the street.
After taking a picture of Miles Davis' tombstone, I looked around again and saw two crosses inscribed with the word "ELLINGTON" about twenty feet away. Sure enough, I had stumbled upon the burial site of one of the greatest American musicians and composers of all time... Duke Ellington.
REMEMBERING MY GRANDFATHER
I know it's pure coincidence that my grandfather is buried next to so many of my jazz heroes, but I can't help but feel like it's somehow his final gift to me. Each time I visit his grave site, I'll also be visiting the grave sites of so many others who have impacted my life, making me the person I am today. It's something I'll always treasure.
I thought I'd end with a funny story that my aunt told me about my grandfather. I should first mention that while my grandfather was a kind and generous man, he also had a unique ability to find fault in just about any situation. He's the kind of guy who would complain that the music is too loud at his own party. Anyway, this character trait revealed itself in its full glory a few years ago, when my Aunt first told him about the cemetery plots that she had purchased at Woodlawn. She thought her father would be pleased to hear about his distinguished final resting place, but naturally he felt differently. Without further ado, here's their exchange (note that at the time of this story, my aunt thought Tito Puente was buried at Woodlawn, but he's actually buried someplace else):
My aunt, speaking to my grandfather: "Dad, this is a very famous cemetery that you'll be buried in. Macy, Woolworth, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Miles Davis are all buried there!"
My grandfather: "So what. Macy's is too expensive, Woolworth's is cheap, Tito Puente was a womanizer, Celia Cruz was too loud, and I hate jazz."
Sorry to tell you grandfather, but if you thought Celia Cruz was too loud, just wait until you hear Max Roach...