The music of the Big Apple is every bit as brash, bold and brilliant as the city itself, says Sophia Deboick.
The musical soul of New York is the musical soul of America. The vagaries of 20th century history have rarely dented the confident, even arrogant, spirit of the music from and about the city, and its iconic music venues – Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall – remain a byword for having made it in the industry. While in the 1960s and 1970s a darker side of the city was explored, the image of New York as the spiritual capital of the land of opportunity has not been shaken, even by disaster.
While Hollywood was a vital habitat for the development of the Great American Songbook, Broadway’s musical theatre and New York’s West 28th Street, otherwise known as Tin Pan Alley, were crucial to the formation of America’s modern musical bedrock throughout the eras of the Jazz Age, the Great Depression and the Second World War.
The immigrants that built the nation were central to this. The Belarusian Irving Berlin embodied the American Dream. Having arrived on Ellis Island in 1893, aged just five, as one of the Statue of Liberty’s ‘huddled masses’, he would go on to define the golden age of American song.
George Gershwin was born Jacob Bruskin Gershowitz, to Russian and Lithuanian parents in Brooklyn in 1898, just five years after the Brooklyn Bridge linked the borough to Manhattan. He saw his Rhapsody in Blue, premiered in New York in 1924, as ‘a musical kaleidoscope of America’, but its association with New York was implicit and was cemented half a century later through its use over the opening credits of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979).
Of rich Midwestern stock, Cole Porter was quite a different figure, but jazz was central to his musical DNA, just like Berlin and Gershwin. He partied in New York as a student at Yale, and his 1930 Prohibition-set musical The New Yorkers featured an ode to the city, I Happen to Like New York, as well as the then-scandalous streetwalker’s song Love for Sale.
Billie Holiday would make that song her own in 1952, having honed her craft in the jazz clubs of Harlem. Indeed, while jazz was born in New Orleans, during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, New York City was where its stars were truly made.
Louis Armstrong and Count Basie were among those who cut their teeth in Harlem’s jazz joints, the area’s 133rd Street known as ‘Swing Street’ for its many music clubs and speakeasies.
The improvisational style of bebop would later emerge out of the artistic and intellectual vibrance of 1920s Harlem, with Minton’s Playhouse, opened in 1938 at West 118th Street’s Cecil Hotel, providing a stage for the innovations of Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. When the Ohioan composer Billy Strayhorn gave swing king Duke Ellington his signature tune Take the A Train (1939), referencing the new A subway service running from Brooklyn, he immortalised pre-War Harlem.
In the 1960s, New York experienced another great creative explosion when the counter culture coalesced in the city’s East Village, and in the following decade, when the city staked its claim as the birthplace of punk (after all, the 1976 debut LP by Queens natives the Ramones appeared six months before the canonical ‘first punk record’, New Rose, by Brits, The Damned).
The Velvet Underground, fronted by Brooklynite Lou Reed, were immersed in bohemian New York, their 1967 debut album inextricable from the Warholian circus, with Warhol providing their management, creative inspiration, and the LP’s banana cover image. They were just as immersed in the city’s rampant drug culture, I’m Waiting for the Man a tableau of a junkie meeting a dealer on the corner of East 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, Harlem – ‘Up to Lexington, one, two, five/ Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive.’
A nine-week residency at Park Avenue’s Max’s Kansas City in the summer of 1970 were The Velvet Underground’s final performances before Reed left in acrimony. Along with the CBGB in the Bowery, Max’s was where New York’s alternative sounds transitioned from the glam proto-punk of the New York Dolls to punk proper.
The Ramones played their first ever gig at CBGB in the summer of 1974, releasing a debut LP 18 months later that was soaked in both the frenetic atmosphere of the burgeoning downtown punk scene and the seedier aspects of New York life, like album track 53rd & 3rd, which referred to the area of Midtown where male prostitutes solicited for work.
The native New Yorker new wave stars that came out of the same CBGB gene pool were by turns chic and cerebral, from the steely cool of Blondie, whose In The Flesh (1976) sang of ‘walking one day on the Lower East Side’, to Television’s debut Marquee Moon (1977), full of imagery of the Bowery, and the art-pop of urban sophisticates Talking Heads, whose first charting single, Psycho Killer (1977) became associated with the Son of Sam killings that had terrorised New Yorkers the previous summer.
Disco was of course the other musical story of 1970s New York, emerging from the gay clubs of SoHo – most famously David Mancuso’s Loft and Nicky Siano’s Gallery – to become both exclusive and famous through Manhattan’s Studio 54, which opened in 1977 and was another New York institution anointed by Warhol, who said it was ‘a dictatorship at the door, democracy on the floor’.
Indeed, Nile Rodgers’ Chic, originally known as the Big Apple Band, wrote their Le Freak after being turned away by the club’s notorious doormen on New Year’s Eve 1977. By that time, Odyssey’s Native New Yorker, the Village People, and the Brooklyn-shot Saturday Night Fever had taken disco global.
Since the 1970s, New York has not been short of musical love letters from its native sons and daughters. The Bronx’s Billy Joel sang of the irresistible pull of his hometown – ‘Been high in the Rockies under the evergreens/ I know what I’m needing/ And I don’t want to waste more time/ I’m in a New York state of mind’ – in 1976, making affectionate mention of Chinatown and Riverside, the New York Times and the New York Daily News. Manhattanite Fred Ebb’s lyrics for the title song of New York, New York (1977), one of Scorsese’s many filmic engagements with the mythos of the city, would become perhaps the ultimate tribute to the Big Apple when Sinatra sang it at Radio City Music Hall in 1978 and adopted it as one of his signature tunes.
After September 2001, such tributes became more poignant, but also maintained the confident defiance that seems hardwired into American national song. New Yorkers the Beastie Boys’ An Open Letter to NYC (2004) declared ‘Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten/ From the Battery to the top of Manhattan/ Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin/ Black, white, New York you make it happen’, adding ‘Since 9-11 we’re still living/ And loving life we’ve been given’. On Empire State of Mind (2009), Brooklynite Jay-Z stated ‘long live the World Trade’, while on Alicia Keys’ expanded version of the song to which she had contributed the original chorus vocals, the city was embraced warts and all. Despite being a place where crime and want have always had a foothold, the magic of New York means ‘these streets will make you feel brand new’.