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Watch The Closing Doors: A History of New York’s Musical Melting Pot

(Year Zero; US: 28 Jun 2011; UK: 27 Jun 2011)

The first volume of author Kris Needs‘ Watch The Closing Doors: A History of New York’s Musical Melting Pot that covers 1945-59 has been released. It’s the first of a six volume, double CD series dedicated to capturing the magic of the Big Apple and documenting its musical landmarks. The sheer chutzpah of the project fits the brash conceit of the geographical location. New York City has always been arrogant and had an attitude of superiority.


And the two discs here contain lots of great music by almost any definition: Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train”, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”, Billie Holiday’s “Autumn in New York”, Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and 28 more top notch recordings featuring the famous (e.g., Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk,) and the just well-known (e.g., The Drifters, Horace Silver, Dave Van Ronk) to the truly obscure (e.g., Machito, Danny Taylor, The Embers).


What makes all these songs selected part of Gotham City’s social history is unclear as the 74-page booklet that comes with the anthology that is supposed to contains Needs’ recollections, artists biographies, illustrations, and such did not come with the promotional copy, nor can it be found on the web. Suffice it to say that when listening, one always has to create the dreamscape in one’s mind. Even if one read the book that comes along, one would still have to hear the music without reading at the same time.


The music has to talk the tawk, as they say back East, and while one could always nit pick with why certain choices were selected over others (No Frank Sinatra? I presume it has to do with copyright issues), there is a plethora of wonderful material here. Still, why such musicians as Louis Armstrong, New Lost City Ramblers, and Big Maybelle are included when most people identify them with other regions of the country takes a stretch of the imagination.


Of course, these artists certainly played New York City and sang of concerns related to the lives outside their homes. One can conceptualize their inclusion in a tribute to the heart of the City that Never Sleeps, just as one can justify the inclusion of such songs of another home such as in Harry Belafonte’s calypso “Matilda” that talks about his girlfriend taking his money and returning to Venezuela.


And why is Garden State native Allen Ginsburg’s poem “Howl” here, when it was his reading of it in San Francisco in 1955 which caused the ruckus that made it famous? I don’t know—perhaps the Moloch-faced image of the skyscrapers suggested by the verse? Or Californian John Cage’s “Indeterminacy Pt. 2”, which was originally delivered at UCLA? Who knows, but one can guess that the inclusion of these two intellectual artists derives from the Empire City’s status as the global center of culture.


And heck, I buy that. I love the Metropolis and if money was no object, I would probably live there. If you want to claim New York invented rocket science, blueberry jam, comfortable furniture, and was the ancient capital of the universe, I would not object. As far as I can tell, Copernicus was wrong. The Earth does not revolve around the sun, but New York City is the center of world. Every song ever written is somehow about or connected to the social history of the Big Apple and has the right to be included here.


This collection of great music, made between the end of the second world war and the beginning of the ‘60s, features the city during its cultural and economic heyday. Wanna quibble? Fahgettaboudit, I ain’t gonna argue wid ya.

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Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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