NEW YORK — Michael Cumella, wearing Nineteen Twenties garb, laid his outdated Victrola file participant down among the many tombstones and turned to the small tour group assembled below the towering bushes at Woodlawn Cemetery.
“She was the diva of her day. The Beyoncé of her day,” he stated, brushing leaves off the modest stone commemorating vaudeville star Nora Bayes.
The group needed to lean in towards the outdated windup Victrola to listen to Bayes’ huge voice, essential within the age earlier than microphones, belting her largest hit, 1917’s “Over There.”
The music’s writer, George M. Cohan, was additionally honored on this tour of jazz and vaudeville greats buried at Woodlawn, a grand outdated cemetery and arboretum within the coronary heart of the Bronx. Cohan and his household lie in an imposing mausoleum with Tiffany stained-glass home windows.
Different stops included the resting locations of jazz pioneers W.C. Helpful and King Oliver; dancers Irene and Vernon Citadel; comic Bert Williams; and, at a crossroads often known as “Jazz Nook,” Duke Ellington, surrounded by Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton and others.
The tour ended on the grave of Irving Berlin, the place the outdated Victrola performed “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
“They known as it ragtime, but it surely’s actually proto-jazz,” says Cumella, who DJs and had a long-running radio present below the identify Phonograph DJ MAC.
“Musicians and artists gravitated right here, aspired to be right here,” he stated.
The Jazz Age musical greats are simply one of many causes a go to to Woodlawn could be fascinating.
Its 400 acres are the resting place of many influential individuals. together with authors (Herman Melville, Dorothy Parker, E.L. Doctorow); enterprise leaders (J.C. Penney, F.W. Woolworth, Madam C.J. Walker); girls’s rights pioneers (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt); musical stars from different eras (Celia Cruz); artists, mayors, civil rights leaders, journalists and extra.
Different strolling and trolley excursions cowl themes resembling Black, Irish, Italian and ladies’s historical past. Latest occasions sponsored by the Woodlawn Conservancy included a tour of resting locations of passengers on the Titanic.
As well as, the non-denominational cemetery is a trove of funerary artwork and shady, hilly magnificence. Its bushes embody a number of specimens acknowledged by New York Metropolis as “Nice Bushes.” The cemetery can really feel far faraway from the busy metropolis blocks round it.
As Bronx inexperienced areas go, Woodlawn is one thing of an undiscovered gem in comparison with the better-known Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Backyard close by. (The cemetery is straightforward to achieve by public transportation, too, with Woodlawn stops on the subway and Metro North Railroad.)
There are grand, castle-like mausoleums with statuary and stained glass, and likewise modest, flat gravestones. The cemetery and its crematorium stay energetic; persons are nonetheless buried there.
Woodlawn was based by a bunch of rich New Yorkers in 1863 in a spot simply accessible from Manhattan. It was designated a Nationwide Historic Landmark in 2011, “a well-liked ultimate resting place for the well-known and highly effective.”
Cumella was a fan of early fashionable music residing in New York Metropolis when he realized so lots of his musical heroes had been mendacity within the floor at Woodlawn. He began visiting the gravestones along with his associates, and shortly, he says, the Conservancy helped him arrange his jazz and vaudeville trolley excursions.
“I’m a giant advocate for letting individuals see and listen to what it was wish to be a music listener 100 years in the past,” he says.
His tour includes somewhat time journey. The Victrola that Cumella units up at each cease performs 78 r.p.m. information and is powered by a spring. He instances himself with a classic pocket watch, and amplifies his voice with an old school acoustic megaphone, like a director in an outdated film.
He tries to maintain the legacy of the period’s artists alive; Bayes, for instance, truly had no gravestone at Woodlawn till Cumella led an effort that received her one in 2018.
Lauren Hinton, who teaches second grade in New York Metropolis, took a latest tour and hopes to include the music and musicians into her classes.
“We discovered to faucet dance final 12 months,” she says, noting that Harold Nicholas, one half of the well-known dancing pair the Nicholas Brothers, is buried in an unmarked grave at Woodlawn. Efforts are underway to purchase him a gravestone.
“It’s vital for individuals to know concerning the previous so that they (artists) don’t fall into obscurity,” she stated.
Additionally on the trolley had been Nancy Gerstman and Bruce Goldstein, filmmakers from Manhattan.
“I liked listening to the music, and placing all these individuals into context. Folks I wouldn’t have identified about, and now I wish to know extra about them,” stated Gerstman.
“There are such a lot of clues about individuals from the gravestones,” added Goldstein. As an illustration, he stated, he hadn’t identified till he noticed the household tombstones that Berlin’s toddler son, Irving Jr., died at 1-month-old, on Christmas Day 1928. “It tells you a large number about them.”
Woodlawn is a trove of cultural historical past, he stated: “This is without doubt one of the wonders of New York.”