Marker recognizes Oxford cemetery for its history and as resting place of jazz musician Maurice Rocco

OXFORD — Two pieces of local history will be commemorated with a state historical marker to be dedicated March 19.

The two-sided marker will recognize the history of the Woodside Cemetery on one side while noting it as the final resting place of one of the community’s most famous figures, Black jazz musician Maurice Rocco.

The Oxford NAACP and the Smith Library of Regional History are co-sponsoring the Ohio Historical Marker dedication in Oxford’s Woodside Cemetery at 2 p.m. Saturday. The public is invited.

Keynote speaker will be Associate Professor of Music at SUNY-Stony Brook Benjamin Tausig.

A welcome will be offered by Fran Jackson, president of the Oxford NAACP, with an acknowledgement of Valerie Elliott, manager emerita of the Smith Library of Regional History. There will be remarks by Richard Sollmann, chair of the advisory board of the W.E. Smith Family Charitable Trust and Smith Library of Regional History; Alison Susor, Museums Empowered Coordinator of the Ohio History Connection; and William Snavely, mayor of the city of Oxford.

There will be music by members of the Bethel A.M.E. church choir.

“We hope (Benjamin Tausig) will talk about Rocco’s significance and influence on later musicians,” Elliott said.

The text that will appear on the historic markers is not permitted to be released in advance of the dedication. It briefly summarizes the local musical background of Maurice Rocco and the history of the Woodside Cemetery, which had been maintained as a joint effort by the city and township but became the city’s responsibility in 2002.

Maurice Rocco was the stage name of Maurice John Rockhold, born in Oxford in 1915. His family was described as “musically talented” and he went on from here for a career as a musician, singer and composer, dealing with such notables as Noble Sissle, Duke Ellington and Lena Horne among others.

That career was rooted in Oxford, as detailed in a Feb. 26, 2010 article in The Oxford Press.

That story explained: “Maurice could play the piano by the time he was 4 years old, but because he was too short to touch the pedals while seated, he played standing up. By the time he was given the stage name Rocco, he had developed a unique style of playing the piano and dancing at the same time.”

Elliott said further research indicates part of that might have been embellished.

“The story about how he learned to play the piano standing up (because he was a child) was only one of several stories,” she said. “He later said someone took his stool at a nightclub and he improvised.”

However his playing style developed, there was more about his youthful local recognition contained in that 2010 article.

“While Maurice was a student at Oxford Public School on West Spring Street, the principal recognized his abilities and asked him to play at school functions including the daily ritual of marching the students into and out of the building. Those who knew Maurice recalled that he would often deviate from the somber marches by jazzing them up. He also played for dances, parties and public events until his talent was discovered and he left Oxford to play in clubs in Cincinnati and then with Duke Ellington,” the article said.

His career saw him perform in Hollywood movies and he was famous for his boogie-woogie performances. With the start of rock ‘n roll music, the popularity of jazz faded and Rocco moved to France and later Bangkok, where he continued to entertain audiences in nightclubs.

It is there that his life came to a tragic end.

“In 1976, while living in Bangkok, he was murdered in his apartment. No motive was discovered nor was anyone arrested or charged. The body of Maurice Rocco was returned to Oxford for burial in Woodside Cemetery, near other members of the Rockhold family,” the article concludes.

It was learned later that he had been cremated and it was his cremains that were buried in Woodside Cemetery.

The history of the cemetery dates back to 1880 when it was established as the Oxford Township Cemetery. It replaced the one at the corner of College Avenue and Spring Street which had been abandoned when it was bisected by the railroad in the 1850s. It was later renamed Woodside Cemetery in 1931.

The new cemetery was established in the midst of Miami University closing for 12 years, 1873-1885. Township trustees discussed the idea of a new cemetery at several meetings. In 1879 they recorded that they were not inclined to do anything about vacating the old burial ground but on May 1, 1880 they met with two members of the village council about purchase of a piece of land.

Township and village officials met on May 8 to discuss the topic.

The process of establishing the cemetery is detailed in Sylvia Ferguson’s book “Burial Grounds of Oxford” indicating that after that meeting, progress toward a new cemetery was rapid.

“The Trustees met on May 15, 1880 and approved a bill in the amount of $453.75 from Harriet N. Logan, Matthew N. Rose and James Logan for six and 5/100 acres of land for use as a Township Cemetery, the deed for same being made to the Incorporated Village of Oxford,” it is explained in the book.

The land had been part of a 95-acre farm fronting on South Exterior Street, now Chestnut Street.

Ferguson’s book goes on to explain, “The first burial in the newly-opened Oxford Township Cemetery was that of Margaret Boston, 18-year-old daughter of Civil War veteran Thomas Boston. She died of consumption and was buried on July 10, 1880. During the two years between that date and August 9, 1882, there were only 37 burials in the new Township Cemetery. In September 1882, it began receiving bodies which were being removed from the old original burying ground. In that month, 42 bodies were transported across town from the grounds near the depot on West Spring Street to the former Logan-Rose farm on East Chestnut Street (then Exterior Street South).”

Burials in that old burying ground had continued even after opening of the new cemetery but the reopening of Miami University in 1885 provided the stimulus for closing that old burial ground to make it more pleasing for visitors and those seeing the town from trains passing through.

A carriage, trap and buggy tour of the town was organized in September 1885 to celebrate the reopening of the university. That day of celebration spurred interest in finally closing the burying ground.

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