A number of years ago I was relating a New York City story to my mother. She said “You sound like Pete Hamill.” To which I said, “That’s about as fine a compliment as you’ve ever given me.”

When Hamill, a quintessential New Yorker, died earlier in the week I thought back to the few times I met him. I can’t say I knew him but we did chat a bit. During one of the chats I told him a family story about my grandparents’ sufferings after one of their daughters died and how these many years later I had taken steps to honor their pain. I related that I was motivated after watching Ric Burns’ documentary “New York.” Hamill, talking about the sufferings of his immigrant father said, “We must honor their pain, that’s what the children of immigrants do.”

I was holding his book, “Downtown,” and asked him to sign it. He wrote, “Charles, long life, and keep honoring the pain of those who came before us.” I remember thinking…he was really paying attention.

And damn, could he talk our language. New York Times columnist Dan Barry once wrote of Pete, “If the streets of NYC could talk they’d sound like Pete Hamill.”

What does this have to do with the musical history of New York City? I bet some of you know. Pete actually won a Grammy in 1976 for Best Album Notes for the Bob Dylan album “Blood on the Tracks.”

One of the tracks “Simple Twist of Fate” is said to be Dylan’s nostalgic look back at his early 1960’s romance with Suze Rotolo.  

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Yehudi Menuhin made his Carnegie Hall debut on November 25 1927, performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. He was eleven years old.

The New York Times critic was astonished. He wrote, “It seems ridiculous to say that he showed a mature conception of Beethoven’s concerto, but that is a fact.” He continued, “Few violinists have played Beethoven’s concerto…with such poetic feeling…”

Menuhin performed more than one hundred times at Carnegie during his sixty-two year career. The photo is a poster announcing a 1942 appearance.

Here’s a 1971 recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, featuring Menuhin and the Menuhin Festival Orchestra. 

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Detail…so much great detail in this photo taken by Marcus Ormsby on Lower Hudson Street in New York City.

One of the posters–to the left of the man in the top hat–appears to advertise what was an “Annual Picnic” taking place in August 1865. The poster above that notes “300 Wanted,” which might be a Civil War recruitment poster, although if this photo were taken in the summer of 1865, the war would have ended a few months earlier. Maybe an old poster? Maybe nothing to do with the Civil War?

Is that John Peake in the top hat? Photography was still a vey new phenomenon so I imagine Mr. Peake and the other workers pictured had walked out of their shops for what must have been a momentous occasion. And look at the carpenter standing on the second floor with a huge plane in his right hand and a 4-square hat.

A great peak at an everyday scene in NYC’s downtown, taken during an era when all my great great grandparents were arriving from Ireland. One was a carpenter…might he be have worked in this building…might he be in this photo?

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I’d guess that’s Bill Evans on piano, and given when this poster was published, January 4, 1958, there’s a good chance that’s Philly Joe Jones on drums. I don’t have a good guess about the bass player’s identity.

The poster was created by Arthur Getz for the New Yorker. Getz created a number of musically themed covers, his inspiration coming from Manhattan’s jazz clubs. Between 1938 and 1988, two hundred and thirteen Getz covers appeared on The New Yorker, making him the most prolific New Yorker cover artist of the twentieth century.

At times I’ll be listening to Bill Evans and I’ll look at the poster and wonder where the scene took place and what music was being performed…the poster hangs on a wall next to my piano…it inspires me

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A while back, author, historian and storyteller extraordinaire Peter Quinn and I created a video using music, image and story called “Peter Quinn’s New York,” which coincided with the launch of Peter’s book “Dry Bones.”  

We wanted to add Gershwin to the short video and we didn’t want to use “Rhapsody in Blue”…wonderful piece of music, but too often used, we thought. We opted for Gershwin performing his Prelude No. 2 in C sharp Minor in attempt to capture the feel of the city.

Peter said, “New York City isn’t so much a city but a character, it destroys some people, elevates others. The one thing New York won’t do is leave you alone, it’s always changing.” Peter continued, “The older I get, the more I’m struck by the drama of change that goes on around us. It’s a great gift for a novelist. You don’t have to search for drama…in New York…you just live it”…as Gershwin hits the final dreamy note of a work he called a “blues lullaby.”

Photo by Jack Rosenzweig.

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Why is it every time I walk past Tiffany’s I think of Audrey Hepburn and Moon River? Any movie more New York City than “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer–who’s career had stalled–collaborated on this 1961 tune, which went on to become the Academy Award winner for Best Original Song.

And when I think there were some who thought the song should not be included in the movie…can you imagine! Supposedly, when Hepburn was told it was coming out she said, “Over my dead body.” True or not, the song stayed in and has become one of the most popular songs in film history.

Here’s the wonderful scene of Audrey Hepburn singing the tune with George Peppard looking on…CLICK HERE

Side note: Andy Williams built a career around the song. He began his TV show with the song, named his production company and venue after it and his autobiography is called “Moon River and Me.” But interestingly, his version of the song was never released as a single, however, his album on which it is included sold over 2 million copies. My favorite, version of the tune is this 1961 recording by Jerry Butler…CLICK HERE

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So many great New York City musical moments: Sinatra, the Beatles, Marian Anderson, the Ronettes, Leonard Bernstein, Billie Holiday, Dion and the Belmonts and Duke Ellington…and that’s just scratching the surface.

From the time I was three or four years old, thanks to my mother, I was listening to the radio. First it was what we now call the American Songbook, then it was Doo Wop, the Girl Groups, Rock, Jazz, and Classical. And then there were/are the venues….the Village Vanguard, Carnegie Hall, the Apollo, Central Park, 55 Bar and on and on.

I, like so many of us, live for good music…and I’m also very interested in the history of music, particularly in New York City.

 Post a photo, a piece of music or a story and…please…add a couple of sentences or a paragraph or two that puts your post into an historical New York context. If you want to personalize a story, go ahead. Everyone loves a universal story…it may be your story, your parents, your grandparents, a friend or an old family acquaintance. So join me here at The Musical History of New York City.

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One of the more interesting relationships in the musical history of New York City, is that of George Gershwin and Kay Swift. 

Swift, married at the time, met Gershwin at a dinner party in 1925. They began seeing each other frequently and Gershwin introduced the classically trained Swift to show music and jazz. A talented songwriter herself, Swift began helping Gershwin with his musical thoughts. 

Swift was divorced in 1934 and although her affair with Gershwin continued until Gershwin’s death in 1937, they never married. Swift’s granddaughter, author, Katharine Weber–she wrote a family memoir “The Memory of All That,” which discusses the relationship–suggests that Gershwin’s mother was unhappy that Swift wasn’t Jewish. 

Swift wrote a number of tunes that are now well known and one in particular has become a popular jazz standard, “Can’t We Be Friends.” Click here to hear Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong sing the tune

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American photographer Lewis Hine did important work exposing the abuses of child labor, but he is also well known for the photographs he took during the construction of the Empire State Building. Lewis called the man in this photo, and others like him, “sky boy” but the photo, taken in 1930, has become known as “Icarus.”

Some think the photo was posed, but that has never been confirmed.To this day, one thing has always baffled me, particularly considering our digital age when photos can flash around the world in seconds…the steelworker in the photo remains unidentified.

One guess…many of the “high steel” workers were Native Indians and commuted from their home reservations in Canada. Perhaps they came to work, returned home with no relatives or friends in the area who could recognize or name him. Many think he may have been a Mohawk Indian, but that too has never been confirmed.  And then I think he doesn’t necessarily look Native American so might he be English or Irish, as some have posited, who lived in upstate New York? 

But through the years, no brother or sister, spouse, child, cousin, co-worker or friend has identified the man in one of NYC’s most iconic photos. Will we ever know? 

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