Oxford jazz great gets historical marker

Video provided by the Smith Library of Regional History and edited by Emily Scott

By Emily Scott

A historical marker will be dedicated to the late Maurice Rocco, an internationally acclaimed jazz musician and actor who was born in Oxford. The event takes place 2 p.m. Saturday, March 19, at Woodside Cemetery. All are welcome to attend.

The Oxford NAACP and the Smith Library of Regional History collaborated for this project. One side of the marker will be for Rocco, who died in 1976. The other side will be for the Woodside Cemetery, which is Oxford’s only publicly supported cemetery, according to a press release from the Smith Library. 

Benjamin Tausig, associate professor of music at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, will be the keynote speaker for the event.

Rocco was a Black gay man who Tausig said faded from the view of popular culture years before his death. As a result, not many remember this once world-renowned musician. 

“The U.S. was racist and homophobic, and he didn’t want anything to do with it. So, I think he went away on purpose, and when he went away on purpose, of course, people were like,  ‘Why would we think about him?’ ” Tausig said.  “I do think that’s been a historical shift. I think now people are interested in these kinds of stories that got lost. This is a good time for (the dedication).” 

Several others will also give remarks, including Fran Jackson, president of the Oxford NAACP; Richard Sollman, 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, Oxford mayor.

The Smith Library and the Oxford NAACP earned grants from the W.E. Smith Family Charitable Trust to fund this project. 

Valerie Elliot is the former manager of Smith Library. She retired from this position but has continued working on this project because she wanted to see it through. Like Tausig, she has been fascinated by Rocco. The two have been in communication to learn more about Rocco for the last three years. 

“To have such a notable musician with connections to Oxford is an exciting thing to celebrate,” Elliot said. 

According to a biography by WBSS Media, Rocco was born Maurice John Rockhold on June 26, 1915, in Oxford. His mother was a music teacher and taught him to play classical piano music at a young age. Some say he was so young that he could not reach the pedals sitting down, which is how he began his signature style of playing while standing. Tausig said it is more likely he picked up on how entertaining this style was to people while in his teens. 

Tausig said Rocco loved to travel to perform, but his first big break was when he began working with the Rogers Sisters at the Kit Kat Club in New York City in the mid-1930s. Their act was called The Three Roccos. It was after this that Rocco legally changed his last name from Rockhold. 

In 1938, Rocco left the city for the film industry. He participated in two films, “Vogues of 1938” and “52nd Street.” He soon returned to New York and fronted a band but went solo by 1940. 

Even though he could not serve in the military during World War II due to poor eyesight, he did work to entertain American troops with his music. In 1945, the same year of his brief marriage, Rocco appeared in the film, “Incendiary Bond,” which was his most famous role in film. 

After running into trouble with law enforcement for bad checks, he moved to Europe, then eventually to Thailand, where he spent the final 10 years of his life. He was found dead March 25, 1976, stabbed to death in his own apartment. 

Rocco was known for his “boogie-woogie” style while playing the piano. He composed his own songs as well. His style influenced Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. 

“He was actually a very  important contributor to the history of rock and roll,” Tausig said. “He didn’t play rock and roll, that wasn’t his genre, but he developed this way of playing that was really exciting to watch. It was really a very engaging stage art, and a lot of people ended up copying him. So, he basically ended up creating a template for how rock and roll would be performed. A lot of people took a lot from him.”

Elliot said Rocco no longer had family in Oxford at the time of his death, but his friends ensured he was cremated and buried with his parents in Woodside Cemetery, although he currently has no grave marker. The historical marker project began as an initiative to get a grave marker, then evolved into the ceremony coming up. 

Tausig is currently in the final stages of writing a book on Rocco titled “Bangkok After Dark: Maurice Rocco and Cold War Global Nightlife.” He estimates it will hit the shelves in the summer of 2023.