During a break in a concert in the Bronx, Victor Goines, a jazz saxophonist and clarinetist, realized that he wanted to spend more time in that very place — a lot more time. Being there would put him close to people he idolized, like Duke Ellington, so he decided to spend $25,000 to buy the land behind the stage.
The land behind the stage was a cemetery plot, No. 10836 GR2-5, on a slope in the Hillcrest section of Woodlawn Cemetery. It is about 50 yards from where Ellington was buried in 1974, and he is not the only jazz great in the neighborhood.
“The location is prime real estate,” said Mr. Goines, who is 52 and does not plan to occupy the plot anytime soon. “I’m looking at Miles Davis, who’s right across the same intersection, and Illinois Jacquet, who’s a couple of plots below where I am.”
For Mr. Goines and others with similar ideas about where they want to be when they die, it is a different kind of hero worship, and puts a new twist on the real estate cliché “location, location, location.” It could be the ultimate form of devotion, putting yourself closer to someone you admired than you ever were in life — especially if the only words you ever spoke to a favorite celebrity were “Can I have your autograph?” or “Can I take a selfie with you?” — or it could be the ultimate way to elevate oneself. You may not be famous, but proximity to someone who was could bestow some prestige.
It is one of those revealing, unexpected details of life, arranging in death to be slightly to the left or right of a Hollywood celebrity like Marilyn Monroe or a civil rights figure like Rosa Parks or someone else with a claim to fame when they were alive. It is not so surprising to people in the funeral business, though.
“It is much like it is if you want to live near your idols,” said Patti Bartsche, the editor of American Cemetery and American Funeral Director magazines. “It has the same cachet — ‘I’m going to be buried near Lionel Hampton’ or ‘I’m going to be buried near Michael Jackson.’ You want to have a connection to somebody who’s important in your life. People choose to be buried, if they choose to be buried, in a place that has meaning to them.”
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There are amateur sculptors who arranged to be buried near famous ones like the avant-garde artist Alexander Archipenko. One woman who works at Woodlawn bought a space for her mother near the crypt of Celia Cruz, the Latin music star. And Jacob Reginald Scott, a businessman who was an amateur drummer before his death in 2012, has an image of a drummer on his tombstone, close to the grave of the bebop pioneer Max Roach.
“He had so many records of all the people who are there, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington,” said his widow, Merri Hinkis-Scott. “He admired all the people he happens to be with now.”
And there are people like Pauline Smith, a jazz fan and swing dancer who plans to be buried at Woodlawn near Ellington and Frankie Manning, one of the early creators of the Lindy hop.
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“Who knows what life is after death?” said Ms. Smith, a retired teacher who is 74 and lives in New Rochelle, N.Y. “Not knowing what it is, I want to enjoy the thing that brings the most joy to me in my life right now, so I want to be close to them.”
That is the same motivation that prompted Marty Markowitz, the former Brooklyn borough president, to buy a plot at Green-Wood Cemetery adjacent to the graves of two prominent Brooklynites from the 19th century, one a mayor in the days when Brooklyn was a city on its own. “That’s what I wanted even before I became borough president,” he said.
Not surprisingly, graves near the final resting places of famous people can carry premium prices. “Cemeteries love this kind of thing,” said Thomas A. Parmalee, the executive director of the publishing company that produces Ms. Bartsche’s magazines and a newsletter, Funeral Service Insider. “When there’s a plot that’s in demand, they can advertise for more money, though I don’t think they go out and advertise because that’s not politically correct.”
A crypt above Marilyn Monroe’s in a cemetery in Los Angeles had a winning bid of $4.6 million on eBay in 2009. The owner, a widow who wanted to pay off the $1 million mortgage her husband had left behind, moved his remains 23 years after he had been buried there. (In 1992, Hugh Hefner, the Playboy magazine founder, paid $75,000 for another crypt near Monroe’s.)
There were reports after Michael Jackson died in 2009 that prices for plots near his in Glendale, Calif., had jumped more than $2,000, to $9,900. And in 2006, after Rosa Parks died, the prices of crypts near where she and members of her family were entombed in a cemetery in Detroit climbed as much as $15,000.
Some cemeteries pre-empt price-gouging. After Jim Valvano, the Queens-born basketball coach who led North Carolina State to a national championship, died in 1993, Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, N.C., laid a sidewalk next to his grave “so that no one could buy that property and sell it at a higher rate,” said Robin Simonton, the executive director. “He was that important in Raleigh that there was a fear that someone would do it.”
She said that the plots closest to Mr. Valvano’s grave — a short walk away, on the sidewalk — now go for $4,000. One was taken when Lorenzo Charles, the player whose dunk won the 1983 championship game, died in 2011 in a bus crash.
At Woodlawn in the Bronx, Susan Olsen, the cemetery’s historian, said that Ellington bought his plot in the late 1950s. The spot he chose was not far from the grave of the singer Florence Mills, who died in 1927 and whom Ellington elegized in the song “Black Beauty” the following year.
Over the years, other jazz figures were buried in the same section of the cemetery, which covers more than 400 acres. Then, in 2000, when the tap dancer Harold Nicholas died, “he wanted to be as close to Ellington as possible,” Ms. Olsen said. “We contacted a family that had an unused space about 12 graves down and we bought it back from them for Harold Nicholas.”
The vibraphonist Lionel Hampton had his people call the cemetery about being buried in the same area, Ms. Olsen said. The cemetery was so eager to welcome him that it cut down a tree before anyone made any arrangements. “We didn’t hear a word until the night before he died” at 94 in 2002, Ms. Olsen said, “and his agent called to make sure we still had the place.”
Illinois Jacquet followed in 2004. And, several years later, Mr. Goines purchased his plot, with Ms. Olsen offering guidance.
“She was very strategic,” said Mr. Goines, who will play a free concert at Woodlawn at 7 p.m. Wednesday with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis. “She said you should buy here because you want people to be able to look up the hill and see you. She said: ‘Don’t get behind Illinois Jacquet. No one’s going to see you there; he has a huge headstone.’ She wanted me to be visible and well received and seen when people come into the place.”
Grammy-winner Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks have played in New York nightclubs appeared in films (The Cotton Club, The Aviator, Finding Forrester, Revolutionary Road, and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) and for concerts at the Town Hall, Jazz At Lincoln Center and the Newport Jazz Festival. Other recording projects include soundtracks for Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages, Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd, Sam Mendes’s Away We Go, Michael Mann’s film Public Enemies, and John Krokidas’s feature, Kill Your Darlings; along with HBO’s Grey Gardens, Todd Haynes’s HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce and an upcoming Haynes’ film called Carol. The Nighthawks are also seen and heard in the USA Network series Royal Pains and the PBS series Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook.
A Brooklyn native, Vince Giordano’s passion for this music and the people that made it began at age 5. He has amassed an amazing collection of over 60,000 band arrangements, 1920s and 30s films, 78 rpm recordings and jazz-age memorabilia. Giordano sought out and studied with important survivors from the period: Whiteman’s hot arranger Bill Challis; drummer Chauncey Morehouse; and bassist Joe Tarto. Giordano’s knowledge, passion, and commitment to authenticity led him to create a sensational band of like-minded players, the Nighthawks.
Giordano has single handedly kept alive an amazing genre of American music that continues to spread the joy and pathos of an era that shaped our nation. This summer, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks will perform at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing; Town Hall’s American premiere of Cole Porter’s La Ambassadeur Review; Music Mountain; Old Westbury Gardens; Kingsborough College; Pier 84’s Moon Dance; the Newport Jazz Festival; Morgan Park in Great Neck; and Levitt Pavillion in Westport, CT. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks can be heard every Monday and Tuesday at Iguana NYC.
This evening’s program is the last before our summer recess. We will resume either in September or October. Mailing list members will be notified of our first meeting by Labor Day.
HAVE A HAPPY SUMMER!
DIRECTIONS TO THE SONIC ARTS CENTER Subway: Take the 1 train to 137th Street City College and walk north to 140th St. & Broadway,
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The Sonic Arts Center at CCNY offers 4-year Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in Music with a concentration in Music and Audio Technology. Their program provides an in-depth curriculum emphasizing real-world skills with a project-based approach. Students enjoy a well-rounded program, with emphasis on audio technology, music theory, orchestration, and history to help them compete in a field that today demands
an ever-growing and highly diverse skill set.
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James Gavin, journalist and author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker