“The Big Apple” is huge in every way, but the history of music in New York City is bigger than the Yankees, the Empire State Building, and Wall Street combined! From jazz to hip hop, from opera houses to Broadway musicals, and from punk to disco, this town has either invented or reinvented nearly every type of music you can can think of. Explore the past by visiting these legendary New York City music venues:
Radio City Music Hall
1260 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
The history of music in New York might top the rest of the country’s history as a whole. Radio City Music Hall was built during the Great Depression in what is now called Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. It’s known for its elegant murals, chandeliers, railings, carpeting, and sculptures, and, oh yeah, its music! As the largest indoor theater on the planet, this music hall truly deserves its nickname as the “Showplace of the Nation.”
Madison Square Garden
4 Pennsylvania Plaza, New York, NY 10001
Madison Square Garden sits on top of Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan. Commonly referred to as “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” Madison Square Garden was one of the first venues to fill a sports arena with concert fans, and it continues to host the biggest names in music today. Some of the most iconic performers from past shows include Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Elton John, and John Lennon, who played his final show there shortly before his death in 1980.
253 W 125th St, New York, NY 10027
Since the 1930s, the Apollo Theater in Harlem has been the most happening place for African-American music. Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Anita O’Day, James Brown, and Ella Fitzgerald are just a few of the legends who have played here. Today you can still see the latest in soul and jazz performed at the Apollo.
315 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036
Now we come to a more specialized venue – the Midtown Manhattan jazz mecca of Birdland first opened in 1949 with a performance by its namesake, Charlie “Bird” Parker. The original location closed down, but a new Birdland opened in the ’80s on the Upper West Side. The owners then decided to get back to the Birdland roots by returning the club to Midtown. The greatest names in jazz play here, following in the path of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. It may have moved twice, but Birdland still delivers all of the old-time jazz vibes you could ask for.
The Knitting Factory
361 Metropolitan Ave, New York, NY 11211
Ready to head out to Brooklyn? The Knitting Factory used to be in Tribeca, but took its wild shows out to Williamsburg in 2008. Their first venue in Manhattan (they now have several around the country) opened in 1987 as a place to host the experimental bands that were emerging in New York City. Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and Soul Coughing all played shows at the Knitting Factory before they became famous. The venue continues to promote the “stranger” side of music in New York, and their current location holds just 300 people, giving shows a personal feel.
This one is bittersweet for NYC residents, as CBGB closed down in 2006 after an incredible run. Its initials stand for “country, bluegrass and blues,” but CBGB was known most of all for its groundbreaking punk rock scene in the ’70s and ’80s. The Patti Smith Group, The Dead Boys, The Ramones, and the B-52’s all played here during their careers. Music in New York City suffered when CBGB shut its doors, but the clothing store that took over the location still displays many of the club’s iconic posters and graffiti, so go ahead and make a stop here on your New York music history tour. (Ear plugs not required!)
Photo by Danielle Scott