Uptown and Downtown Scenes: The Manhattan Mixtape

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The artists in our essential Manhattan mixtape were not necessarily born in the borough, but like so many residents, they came here to make it.


52nd Street circa 1948 (courtesy of William P. Gottlieb), and CBGB circa 2007 (Photo by Joseph Holmes)

The artists that have come to Manhattan are not unlike the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Both flock here to make a fresh start in a city that embraces its new arrivals, but can crush them — artistically, emotionally and financially. For those that endure, the rewards make the struggle worth it.

Below are artists who are innovative and embody that invigorating city spirit that young musicians just finding their voice have often created. Their music still sounds as radically fresh as it was at its inception. Many of the artists below helped change the course of popular music and at various periods help define the musical landscape of the city.

Track 1: "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin (1924) – Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, but by the age of 15 he was writing music for Tin Pan Alley. Rhapsody, a mix of classical and jazz was written for solo piano and jazz band and is one of the most popular American concert works. This is the composition that many say cemented Gershwin's reputation as a serious composer.

Track 2: "God Bless the Child" by Billie Holiday (1939) – Holiday, whose birth name is Eleanora Fagan, was born in Philadelphia and had a troubled childhood. At 10 she was brought to juvenile court and was a prostitute before she'd turned 20. It was during that time that she discovered jazz. She moved to Harlem soon after that. "God Bless the Child" is one of the Songs of the Century.

Track 3: "Georgie on the IRT" by Dave Van Ronk (1959-1961) – Dave Van Ronk was born in Brooklyn in 1936, but eventually settled in Greenwich Village and came to be known as “the mayor of MacDougal Street.” Although he started out playing traditional jazz, he’s best known for his folk-blues and was a major force in the folk revival of the 1960s. Bob Dylan slept on Van Ronk’s couch and learned to play many traditional songs from him.

Track 4: "Round About Midnight" by Thelonious Monk (1947) – Monk was born in North Carolina, but moved to West 63rd Street at age 5 with his family. And many report that he began playing piano one year later. Monk attended Stuyvesant High School but never graduated, and his piano playing was mostly self-taught. Monk was the house pianist at the Manhattan club, Minton's Playhouse, where jazz musicians developed the style known as bebop. Monk's playing was described as "hard-swinging." At Minton's, Monk honed his skills playing alongside Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke. Monk is known for his dissonant compositions punctuated with silences and pauses. He was also known to stop playing in the middle of a song, stand up and dance, and then return to the piano.

Track 5: "Talkin' New York" by Bob Dylan (1962) – While everyone knows he was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn., it wasn’t until he arrived in the East Village that the man we know as Bob Dylan was born. Spending his time in downtown cafes and bars and learning from local musicians like Woody Guthrie and Rambling Jack Elliott, it would be remiss not to include some Dylan on a mixtape of Manhattan music. 

Dylan writes in his autobiography "Chronicles" about meeting Thelonious Monk one time. Dyaln introduces himself as a "folk singer."

"We are all folk singers," Monk replies.

Track 6: "I’m Waiting for the Man" by The Velvet Underground (1967) – It’s the stuff of rock ‘n' roll legend. The iconic album, all white with an Andy Warhol banana on the cover, was not popular at the time it came out (1967). Brian Eno reportedly once said that only about 5,000 people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but they all started their own bands. It was a druggy, nihilistic kind of music that came straight out of the Lower East Side. The frontman, Lou Reed, went on to a prodigious solo career and continues to put out records, as does the other founder, Welsh-born John Cale.

Track 7: "53rd & 3rd" by The Ramones (1976) – Yes, the band was formed in Forest Hill, Queens, but The Ramones were a fixture at the downtown club CBGB. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy (they adopted the last name Ramone, although they were not related) are probably best known for their three-chord driving punk tunes, distinctive leather jackets and torn jeans that became the punk aesthetic. Their music is part Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and part pre-Beatles bubble gum pop.

Track 8: "O Superman" by Laurie Anderson (1981) – Born in Chicago, Anderson moved to New York City at 20 and later attended Barnard, where she received a degree in art history before going on on to Columbia and earning an MFA in sculpture. In addition to her teaching duties at City College, Anderson became a fixture on the New York art scene by the early 1980s. For one of her early performances, Anderson played violin while wearing ice skates that were frozen into a block of ice. Her single "O Superman," shot to No. 2 on the British pop charts.


Track 9:"The Modern Age" by The Strokes (2001) The five-member garage rock band is fronted by singer and songwriter Julian Casablancas, who met the drummer, Fabrizio Moretti, at an Upper West Side prep school. They hooked up with an Upper East Side prep school student, Nikolai Fraiture, and an NYU film student, Albert Hammond, Jr., in the late 1990s and formed a band credited with kick starting the "garage rock revival."

Track 10: "Tito On Timbales" by Tito Puente (1956) – Puente was a percussionist and composer, a symbol of Latin Jazz, often called the King of Latin Jazz. Born in Spanish Harlem to Puerto Rican parents, Puente played in a big band at the age of 13, but dropped out of high school and served in World War II. Afterward, he studied orchestration, composing and piano at Juilliard and the New School. He put out 118 records and performed live over 10,000 times during his long career.

Track 11: "Date with the Night" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2003) – While the lead singer of the group, Karen O, and the drummer, Brian Chase, met at Oberlin College, it wasn't until Karen O moved to Manhattan to study at NYU that the band formed. After releasing several EPs, the band gained a decent following and broke out with their debut album "Fever to Tell" in 2003.

Track 12: "Cavern" by Liquid Liquid (1981) – This minimalist post-punk funk band only put out three EPs, but their music had a great influence. Their music lives on through their heavily sampled bass lines in hip-hop records and an ongoing influence on newer bands like Vampire Weekend and LCD Soundsystem.


What would you put on an essential mixtape for Manhattan? Post your artists or tracks below.