Various Artists

Watch the Closing Doors: A History of New York’s Musical Melting Pot, Vol. 1: 1945-1959

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Label: Year Zero

Among U.S. cities, New York is unarguably the most mythologized. It’s been feted and eulogized as part of our American character, celebrated on screen and in song and served as the geographical backdrop and artistic inspiration for highbrow and trash pop culture alike. It is that romanticized image of NYC that dominates Watch the Closing Doors: A History of New York’s Musical Melting Pot, Vol. 1: 1945-1959, which aims to, according to music journalist Kris Needs’ liner notes, “Document and celebrate this lost world before it completely disappears.” To skeptics such a statement might sound overblown, a bit like a documentarian seeking to film some isolated, previously uncontacted primitive culture before the modern world swallows it whole, but Needs is able to routinely evoke the spirit and tenor of a long-gone New York in the immediate post-World War II years.

The song selection is impossible to gripe too loudly about, even as Needs acknowledges some unfortunate omissions – John Coltrane, for example – due to licensing issues. But what’s included does represent a fairly comprehensive overview of the various musical genres that either originated or, more frequently, matured, in New York. Jazz rightfully makes up the bulk of this collection, with well-chosen tracks from the usual suspects – Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Louis Armstrong – as well as lesser-knowns like Cozy Cole and Horace Silver. Folk and blues are likewise deeply accounted for, with songs by Almanac Singers, Dave Van Ronk, New Lost City Ramblers and Harry Belafonte giving a sense of the period’s social and cultural atmosphere. The remaining inclusions cover doo-wop, avant garde experimentalism, mambo, Beat poetry, tight-harmony groups and the very brief Pig Latin craze (o-nay idding-kay) from names any serious student of music will know: Cab Calloway, Frankie Lymon, Drifters, Big Joe Turner and so on. The entire two-CD volume thematically holds together extremely well, as most songs are in some way tied to its namesake city, whether they were written or recorded in New York, inspired by New York, or popularized by live performances in the clubs and concert halls of New York.

If there is a complaint to be made about the song selection, it’s that some tunes tend to sound like museum pieces best left for academic study, ill-fit for repeated listening. Still, several other songs are powerful enough to knock modern listeners right on their asses, especially those sung by Nina Simone (“Little Girl Blue”), Billie Holiday (“Autumn In New York”) and Josh White (“Southern Exposure”), the last of whose artistry and importance in both folk music and the 1960s Civil Rights movement continue to be inexplicably overlooked. Needs’ liner notes are extensive and usually outstanding; he offers detailed biographical information about each artist, placing the musicians in their proper historical context and explaining how each song fits within the creative culture of New York during the years covered in these two discs. He does, however, have a tendency to view this past in idealized – and perhaps too-nostalgic – terms; it’s ironic, then, that in these liner notes he can pine for the New York of long ago, all the while recalling the various racial and political prejudices many of the musicians he writes about suffered, both in out and out of the Big Apple. All that aside, and excusing the occasional debatable fact or opinion, these liner notes are an essential complement to the songs and artists they take as their subjects.

This volume of Watch the Closing Doors is the first entry of what will eventually be a mammoth 12-disc set that tracks the arcs of various musical movements and their relationship to New York. As a broad introduction it serves its purpose well, and Needs’ liner notes alone warrant mention for both their depth and historiography. This initial collection is by no means exhaustive, but nor does it pretend to be, and Needs readily acknowledges the limitations of trying to represent such a rich period of American music in just a couple discs. Snobs may sneer about a perceived lack of obscure artists, but Watch the Closing Doors is nevertheless a carefully compiled primer of the era it examines, and the type of release that offers plenty of jumping off points for listeners interested in becoming more familiar with the artists it features.

by Eric Dennis

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