In 1949, E.B. White published one heck of an essay. Called Here is New York, this thing reads like a veritable love letter to the city—all long walks and drinks at the Algonquin. (The mid-twentieth century version of a perfect Bumble date.) And throughout these musings, White describes three kinds of New Yorkers: natives who take the place for granted; commuters who are “spat out each night”; and thirdly, most importantly, those who were “born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.”
It’s true: Musicians have long flocked here in quest of treble clefs—in quest of recognition and fame. And fortunately for all parties involved, there has been a constant crop of venues to receive them. To prop them and redefine music in the process. The Apollo theater, for one, debuted Ella Fitzgerald at an Amateur Night in 1934; CBGB birthed the entire genre of punk; a group of roommates, now known as the Strokes, stepped into the Mercury Lounge back in 2000.
Where would we be without these institutions? Without their unflagging dedication to artists who chose to forge their quests in New York City? In this retrospective, Whalebone pays tribute to four such establishments: the Apollo, the Village Vanguard, CBGB and the Mercury Lounge. Prepare to have your mind rocked.
Address: 178 7th Avenue S, West Village
Careers Launched: Thelonious Monk, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis
Famous Acts: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus
Beginnings: Prior to opening the Vanguard, Lithuanian immigrant-turned-nightclub owner Max Gordon unsuccessfully launched another jazz venue at the corner of Greenwich and Charles (also in the West Village). But when the city of New York City denied Gordon a “cabaret” license — there weren’t enough exits or bathrooms — he was forced to fish and cut bait… until a speakeasy called the Golden Triangle came up for sale in the 7th Avenue location where the “Camelot of jazz rooms” still stands today.
Fun Facts: Max Gordon used to spend time on Fire Island. He even met his future wife, Lorraine, there when she approached the infamous jazz proprietor at BlueBell Bakery and begged him to feature an unknown musician by the name of Thelonious Monk. And while their romantic pairing was a success (they married soon after), Monk’s first performance at the Vanguard was not. Lorraine, who is 93 and still runs the joint ‘til this day, remembered his debut in a 1995 interview: “Nobody came. None of the so-called jazz critics. None of the so-called cognoscenti. Zilch.” Suffice it to say, people eventually came, and both Monk and the Vanguard remain legends.
Address: 315 Bowery, East Village (closed)
Careers Launched: Patti Smith, Blondie, Ramones
Famous Acts: Talking Heads, The Heartbreakers, The Police
Beginnings: Hilly Kristal opened CBGB on the site of his earlier bar, Hilly’s on the Bowery. The name is an acronym for country, bluegrass and blues—the type of live music he initially intended to attract. Early performers, however—like Suicide, The Fast and Magic Tramps—trended more toward punk, laying the foundation for CBGB’s current reputation as the birthplace of the genre.
Fun Fact: When CBGB was open, it had only two rules: Bands must move their own equipment and play mostly original songs. And for 30 years, it worked—the place is the undisputed birthplace of punk. But in 2005, the joint’s landlord not only skyrocketed their rent, but also sued CBGB for $90,000 in unpaid fees. (Kristal claimed he was never notified of previous rent increases.) A legal battle ensued, and CBGB formally closed on September 30, 2006.
Address: 217 E Houston, Lower East Side
Music: Rock, Alternative
Careers Launched: The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol
Famous Acts: Jeff Buckley, Lou Reed, The Killers
Beginnings: This Lower East Side building is literally wrought with history: It once served as home to the Astor family’s servants, with underground tunnels connecting Houston Street to the Astor mansion on Fifth Avenue. The space then became a long gone, but beloved, Jewish restaurant called Garfein’s, as well a store for tombstones. 1993 saw it converted into the Mercury Lounge.
Fun Fact: According to New York Magazine, “just about every successful band” to come out of New York City in the early 2000s got their start at the Mercury Lounge. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol both gained notoriety here, but the Strokes are considered the ultimate Mercury-born band. The fivesome met while roommates in New York City, playing some of their earliest shows at the Lounge. The venue’s booker at the time, Ryan Gentles, even quit to become the band’s manager—a position he still holds today.
Address: 253 W 125th St, Harlem
Music: Vaudeville, Swing
Careers Launched: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., Diana Ross & The Supremes
Famous Acts: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, James Brown
Beginnings: Built in 1913, this world famous theater first opened as Hurtig and Seamon’s Burlesque. (Read: chorus lines of beautiful women.) But we guess people were still too upset about the Titanic, because the thing went out of business and the building eventually fell into disrepair. That is, until a new owner by the name of Sidney Cohen swooped in to restore and reopen the theater as the Apollo in 1934, gaining fast recognition as one of the most opulent venues in the city.
Fun Facts: From its beginnings, the Apollo held its still famous Amateur Night. The Monday evening competition was broadcast on the radio, drawing the 1930’s equivalent of “Kardashian level attention.” And while some contestants were booed from the stage by lively crowds, others made such an impression that their careers were launched. Perhaps you’ve heard of some Amateur Night winners? In addition to Ella Fitzgerald’s debut at the age of 17, Jimmy Hendrix won first place in 1964.
Words + photos as featured in Whalebone’s seventh issue, the Throwback Issue. Look out for our upcoming issue, the Water Issue, hitting pool decks all around America July 1st.