My wife says that New York City feels like the whole world is here, being themselves. There is some fusion, but not that much!
Billy Strayhorn wrote this song in 1939 after Duke Ellington invited him to join his organisation and wrote a letter explaining how to get to his home in Sugar Hill: “Take the A train from Penn Station…”. In 1936 the A train was extended into Brooklyn to Rockaway, through Bedford Stuyvesant a large African American community. The song invited them to come to Harlem via the West Side on the 8th Avenue Red line and join the party. Sophisticated Swing.
The 6 Train runs up and down the East side of Manhattan from the Bronx down to City Hall by Brooklyn Bridge. It was opened in 1904. So 113 years later Princess Nokia was using the Green Line to travel between her East Harlem Nuyorican roots and the hipster scene on the Lower East Side. Queer emo-rap. Skip to 4.20 on the playlist.
George Gershwin wrote the masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue in 1926 and went on to become obsessed with writing an opera about African Americans, fighting his producers and backers to not have blacked-up white actors in the show. Porgy & Bess is a towering achievement continues to be hugely popular around the world. Charlie Parker is one of thousands of musicians to tackle Summertime, it is perhaps the standard among standards. Parker was from Kansas City where he apprenticed with Count Basie, then moved up to New York City in 1939. He, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell, Curly Russell and Miles Davis broke swing down and built it back impatiently as bebop , reinventing jazz once more as the greatest American artform. The recordings from 1945 are seminal. Parker loved classical music too, Stravinsky and others, and Summertime is from the 1949 LP Parker With Strings.
Charles Mingus was from Watts in Los Angeles. He made his reputation on the scene as a supremely gifted musician playing stand-up bass, although he was a frustrated cellist and an extraordinary pianist. A student of both Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker he divided his own music into Pre-Bird and Post-Bird, so influenced was he by Parker. One of the great composers and arrangers of both jazz and classical, often in the same piece (often called Third Stream) he was nevertheless most famous for inspired extemporisation, and he always encouraged his seminary of young musicians to stretch out. This song II BS was originally recorded as Haitian Fight Song a decade earlier, Mingus often reworking his favourite compositions. His music is kept alive by his widow Sue Mingus every Monday night at the Jazz Standard at E27th St where the Grammy Award-winning Mingus Big Band (3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 5 saxophones, piano bass drums) play only his music. My favourite thing to do in NYC!
Born in the South Bronx in 1950 to Puerto Rican parents, Willie Colon is thus a Nuyorican. He played trumpet from a young age then switched to trombone. Naturally gifted he recorded his first LP aged 17. By then the waves of immigration from the Caribbean and South America had produced dance crazes and super bands for decades – mambo, chachacha, and pachanga were all imports which flourished in New York, but boogaloo was born there. Joe Cuba, Pete Rodriguez and Joe Bataan all had huge hits blending Latin music with rhythm & blues. Bataan had Filipino and African-American parents but was born in East Harlem, growing up with Puerto Rican street gangs which led him to both prison and boogaloo. Latin Strut is from 1973 LP Salsoul – a term coined by Bataan - and is a sublime example of the melting pot of musical styles that have come from the city. Salsa emerged from this scene as the more politicised late 60s took another look at Cuban son, which reemerged as salsa. The Fania label was the home of salsa in the early days and The Hustler is the title track from Willie Colon’s 2nd album released in 1968.
Dionne Warwick was raised in Orange, New Jersey just 20 minutes from the Big Apple, a journey she would take with The Gospelaires a backing session group which included Judy Clay Cissy Houston and Doris Troy among its alumni. Dionne was spotted at one session by songwriter Burt Bacharach, who with his lyricist Hal David was one of the young stars of The Brill Building at 1619 Broadway at 49th Street, just north of Times Square and the centre of the American music industry for decades, following the demise of Tin Pan Alley down on 28th St who knows when. Bacharach had found his muse in Warwick and a beautiful partnership was born with the release of Don’t Make Me Over in 1963, her first solo recording.
Dion DiMucci was from an Italian- American Bronx family and as a child toured with his father a vaudevillian entertainer. On the Bronx streets doo-wop was hip and happening in the mid 1950s and the leading bands of the day The Flamingos, The Dells, The Five Satins (none of which were NYC bands) were hot. Dion formed a band called The Belmonts – two of whose members lived on Belmont Avenue. They recorded a hit I Wonder Why in 1958 and were invited on tour with Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens in 1959. Holly chartered a plane to get them all from Clearlake Iowa to Minnesota rather than take the tourbus. DiMucci decided he couldn’t justify the $36 ticket because that was more money than his ma and pa paid for their home every month in the Bronx. The plane crashed shortly after take-off killing all on board ‘the day the music died’. Dion and The Belmonts stayed on that tour. By 1961 Dion (my favourite Starbucks name) had split from the Belmonts and recorded a number of solo singles including the number one smash Runaround Sue.
In a city built by and composed of immigrants, John Lennon was certainly one of the more celebrated. He moved here in 1971 while recording Imagine at the Record Plant and never returned to England. Part of the reason was his celebrated Green Card fight with the authorities who saw him as a subversive influence but he also truly loved the city which he fully embraced as his home with Yoko Ono, his one true love, and which embraced him back in equal measure. He has a permanent shrine in Central Park called Strawberry Fields which is opposite his home in the Dakota Building on 72nd Street where Yoko still lives. New York City is, in essence, The Ballad of John & Yoko part two, a musical biography of the pair moving to New York and referencing Jerry Rubin, Max’s Kansas City, the Staten Island Ferry, the Apollo, the Fillmore East and the Statue of Liberty, with a punky chorus in Spanish: “que pasa New York?” mixed with classic Lennonisms “Long Tall Sally’s a man” and “God’s a red herring in drag”. He is still missed. “Tryin’ to shake our image just cycling through the village but found that we had left in back in London…”
Richard Meyer’s parents were jewish and methodist and he moved Delaware from Kentucky as a teenager where he’d met Tom Miller another poet/musician. They would reconnect in NYC and publish poetry under the pseudonym Theresa Stern whose face was both of their faces superimposed over each other. Tom became Tom Verlaine after the french poet who inspired much of that scene, Richard became Richard Hell, and their band was The Neon Boys, soon changed to Television. The song Blank Generation dates from this time 1974. Hell left Television in 1975 to form The Heartbreakers with Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders from the New York Dolls, but he left that band to form Richard Hell & The Voidoids in early 1976. By now he had been wearing ripped clothing held together with safety pins and spiked hair for some years, and Malcolm McClaren had taken the look back to London. Richard certainly was a fully fledged member of the blank generation, although he always referred to the song as literally being about whatever you wanted : ‘fill in the blank with your word’.
Self-styled Greatest Rapper of All Time (most of his raps celebrate his own technique and craft) actually probably is the greatest rapper of all time, according to most of the other rappers – Chuck D, Eminem, Big Pun, Ice-T, The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac and many others cited Rakim as the king, the emperor, the leader. This is just solid golden age old-skool hip hop sampling Bobby Byrd & the JBs on twin turntables courtesy of Eric B and rapping about what they’re doing and where they’re doing it. Hip hop emerged from the South Bronx in the mid-70s and spread throughout New York City like wildfire. This track I Know You Got Soul is from Long Island’s Eric B & Rakim’s first LP Paid In Full produced by Marley Marl in Queensbridge and Power Play Studios and is a pinnacle of the art.
Bernard Herrmann was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and went to school on 59th St and 10th Avenue. With his father’s encouragement he studied at Juilliard music school and in 1934 joined CBS as a conductor. There he collaborated with Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre On The Air, a weekly program which included the notorious War Of The Worlds broadcast. He wrote his first film score for Citizen Kane, won an Oscar for The Devil and Daniel Webster, wrote for Hitchcock on Vertigo, Psycho, The Trouble With Harry and North By Northwest before the pair fell out over the score for Torn Curtain. He went on to score Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (an influence on George Martin) and episodes of the Twilight Zone. His final film score was this one for Martin Scorsese’s stunning NYC film noir picture Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader and starring a young and incendiary Robert De Niro. The saxophone is by LA Express jazz tenor player Tom Scott. Herrmann died on December 24th 1975, before the film was released.
Billy Joel was born in The Bronx and grew up in Long Island. Tony Bennett was born and raised in Astoria, Queens. Here, playing at the closing of Shea Stadium in 2009 which had been home to The Mets baseball and hosted The Beatles in a famous show in 1965, they celebrate a New York State Of Mind. The song was written by Joel as he returned home from a three-year spell in Los Angeles : “I’m taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River Line”. It is sentimental and deeply moving at the same time. Billy Joel plays at Madison Square Gardens once a month and has done since we moved here. Tony Bennett is 93 on August 3rd 2019.
The Big Apple A-List Playlist:
Take The A Train - Duke Ellington
Green Line - Princess Nokia
Summertime - Charlie Parker
II BS - Charles Mingus
The Hustler - Willie Colon
Latin Strut - Joe Bataan
Don’t Make Me Over - Dionne Warwick
Runaround Sue - Dion
New York City - John Lennon
Blank Generation - Richard Hell & the Voidoids
I Know You Got Soul - Eric B & Rakim
Theme from Taxi Driver - Bernard Herrmann
New York State of Mind - Billy Joel & Tony Bennett
Bronx and Five Borough B-List Playlist:
Romeo Had Juliette - Lou Reed
Miles Runs The Voodoo Down - Miles Davis
Planet Rock - Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force
Powerhouse - Raymond Scott
Tenth Avenue Freezeout live - Bruce Springsteen
Always & Forever - Pat Metheny & Toots Thielemans
I Guess The Lord Must Be In NYC - Harry Nilsson
Honeysuckle Rose (Carnegie Hall) - Benny Goodman
The World Is Yours - Nas
I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun - Nuyorican Soul ft Jocelyn Brown
Birdfingers - Larry Coryell
New York - St Vincent
Apologies for the shortage of female artists.
Guru’s Wildcard Picks:
Not many …
It was my absolute pleasure and privilege to compile these playlists this week. I have been compiling my own New York playlist since I arrived in this city. Thank you for your suggestions and for playing with grace and good humour.
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: In full swing: songs and instrumentals from New York City. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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