Jazz Lives At Duke Ellington's Resting Place

Members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra play an Exquisite Corpse at Woodlawn Cemetery as part of Make Music New York on June 21, 2015. (NPR)
Members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra play an Exquisite Corpse at Woodlawn Cemetery as part of Make Music New York on June 21, 2015. (NPR)

Each June 21, the one-day Make Music New York festival (MMNY) celebrates not just sound but community. It's a summer solstice gathering of the tribes for music makers and music lovers alike, with more than 1200 outdoor concerts across the five boroughs running from morning till night.

For the 2015 edition, the festival's organizers invited musicians to six different burial grounds across the city to riff on the idea of "exquisite corpse," a surrealist parlor game popularized by artists and poets in the 1920s. In the game, someone writes a phrase (or draws part of a figure or scene), folds that part of the page over, and then passes it to the next player, who then does the same. The game ends when everyone has had a turn. That game is a natural bridge to the art of improvisation, and to jazz.

The idea of community was very much on the mind of a group of musicians who play regularly at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, one of the venues within Jazz at Lincoln Center, when they gathered at Woodlawn Cemetery for this year's edition of MMNY for their own spin on the exquisite corpse idea.

Woodlawn Cemetery is a mecca for the jazz world — it's the final resting ground of royalty like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and many others, including Ornette Coleman now as well. So as a tribute to their musical forerunners, the group — singers Michael Mwenso and Vuyo Sotashe, trumpeters Alphonso Horne and Bruce Harris, saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, pianist Chris Pattishall, bassist Russell Hall, drummer Evan Sherman and tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman — took as their point of departure W.C. Handy's 1914 tune "St. Louis Blues," a tune essential to jazz's DNA. But they made it their own via surprising and turns that saunter through many textures, colors and rhythms.

Handy himself is buried at Woodlawn. This community remembers its roots, and continues to thrive — on this summer afternoon under the shade of Ellington's adopted tree.

Set List

  • "St. Louis Blues" (Handy)

Credits

Producers: Colin Marshall, Anastasia Tsioulcas; Videographers: Colin Marshall, Chris Parks, Adam Wolffbrandt; Audio Engineers: Brian Jarboe, Drew Sher; Audio Mix: Neil Tevault; Special Thanks: Jazz at Lincoln Center, Make Music New York, Woodlawn Conservancy; Funded in part by: The Argus Fund, Doris Duke Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Wyncote Foundation; Executive Producer: Anya Grundmann

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.