the idea was intriguing, full of promise and somewhat daunting: an interview with an award winning npr producer at billie holiday's grave, to air on the anniversary of her death.
we decided to convene in front of the iconic lenox lounge at high noon on tuesday -- npr producer/reporter elizabeth blair, author and columbia university professor farah griffin and harmelodic me -- for our trek to st. raymond's cemetery, which was located in a far removed section of the bronx, all the way out behind God's back as my great-grandmother would say, by the throg's neck bridge at edgewater park. no wonder i had never been there before, or ever thought to go. it was not easily accessible -- not like woodlawn cemetery, available via the 2, 4 or 5 subway lines, internationally recognized as a resting place for some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world, and recently designated a national historic landmark. talk about a no man's land: edgewater park hadn't appeared on official city maps until 20 years ago. if you don't want to be found, that's exactly where you want to be.
ironically, woodlawn feels like a constant celebration of life. it's a really old cool place -- and i love old cool places. there are people wandering around constantly, looking hither and yon at the landscape, the architecture, the art and of course looking for musicians' graves. there are tour groups. there are events, festive gatherings, performances and the like. i mean, seriously cool stuff. (i've performed there, too.) they even have a friends of the woodlawn cemetery group that spearheads a lot of activities. i love going there, especially with friends who love jazz as much as i do. it's a wonderful way to pause and reflect and get lost in the past and the present while tipping slowly towards the future, all at once. if it's a sunny day, you feel as though you're in a park because everything is so lush and green and well tended. i suppose it takes a lot of money to maintain such a large expanse.
st. raymond's, on the other hand, is very private and very catholic. it's also older than woodlawn -- but it doesn't feel like it. i suppose the church picks up the tab for maintenance and upkeep because there are no paid tours and such. it feels so austere and distant, somehow -- and no small wonder. public transportation is not really an option and if you do get all the way out there, you had bloody well better have a way to get back. i can't even imagine the long strange walk you would have to endure to return to the land of the living, a subway line or a yellow cab sighting of some sort.
npr photographer mito habe-evans was a lovely surprise. it was gray and cold (in the 60s? in june?) with a constant threat of rain -- so cinematic -- and fittingly, the small sturdy black umbrella i wielded held so much blue sky inside of it. we jumped into the first jitney that stopped for us at the corner of 125th & lenox. he was african and spoke english haltingly but thankfully his gps worked perfectly. with introductions all around and the talk amongst us that ensued, it seemed that we were there in no time at all.
adorned with my favorite african silver jewelry, i wore a black wiggle dress. i don't know why. when i realized how soggy and cold and miserable it was outside, i decided to wear a hat that made my head look as though it was covered with dogwood blossoms. farah wore a black dress, too. i was relieved to see that. after a certain point, it felt as though we were dressed in funeral attire. totally appropriate, somehow.
once we were out of the office and done with logistics and armed with maps that would lead us to her section and plot number, our chat turned into a freewheeling conversation about jazz and the music industry and history and such that encompassed our collective love and respect for lady day. we wandered down a long wide stretch of black asphalt, framed with large trees that leaned over us, hovering attentively as we wandered with a purpose, opening and closing our umbrellas with each threat of a downpour. somewhere in the distance, cars whizzed by. every so often, a low-flying jet airliner zooming slowly overhead would break through the quiet around us. with headphones on, elizabeth and her mic was surprisingly unobtrusive -- and so was mito's camera. it felt like we were done by the time we got started.
then again, to be completely honest, i'm not so sure when we got started. we had begun so long ago, each of us, where ever we were when we first encountered ms. holiday's voice, whenever we began to get to know her through her music, her biographies, her high-falutin' autobiography and whatever else we could read. and that almost completely fictional bio-pic that way too many people treat like a weird documentary. we kept moving along such powerful yet tenuous parallel lines with our ideas and our projects and our performances and our documentaries and our interviews that circumnavigated this lady. somewhere along the way, those lines converged at her tombstone, with me singing and farah holding still and elizabeth holding the mic, unwavering and mito clicking and clicking and clicking and clicking away.
we won't be able to hear any of what we did until it airs on july 17th but i know it will capture the beauty and elegance and reverence that drifted around us like so much silver lining on such a cloudy day. mito's camera could shoot video, so she did. i remember that she was especially careful to hold it still as i sang. who knows if she got anything at all. and that's alright with me. i quite like surprises.
there were moments that will stay with me for a long time, regardless. how silent we became when we realized that we had found it, and how we stayed that way for longer than i thought we would. reading aloud frank o'hara's beautiful and elegaic poem the day lady died. farah, leaving a bottle of gardenia perfume on the edge of the bottom of the tombstone. all of us, staring at her headstone and taking it all in, and then feeling a strange jolt in the pit of me as a thought flashes through my head and stays there, like a perpetual echo unfurled: she is real. she is real. she is real. she is real. she is real. she is real. she is real.