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The Village Vanguard at night | © Tom Marcello/Flickr
The Village Vanguard at night | © Tom Marcello/Flickr
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A Music Lover's Guide To NYC's Unique Venues

Picture of Michael McGrath
Updated: 9 December 2016
New York City possesses some of the most famous and interesting musical venues in the world. Here are a list of nine, past and present, that have a fascinating history.
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Radio City Music Hall

Entering Radio City for the first time is like walking into a technicolor dream. The Hall seems as though it wasn’t built, but rather conjured up by the gods. Replete with luscious interiors, grand staircases, shimmering acoustics, superb sight lines and topped off with its gorgeous Art Deco design, it is hard to fathom anyone ever wanting to knock it down. But it almost happened during the late 1970s. Radio City, like the rest of NYC at that time, had fallen on hard times. Gone were the amazing stage shows, replaced primarily with standard movie fare. It was also in dire need of repair. Cool heads eventually prevailed and capital was procured. With a little love and care and a few renovations, Radio City was transformed once again into a sensational live event venue. Today, Radio City houses a multitude of concerts, award shows, television events, as well as musical and entertainment extravaganzas. This is a must for anyone visiting town.

Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY, USA +1 212 465 6741

The Apollo Theater

Concert Hall, Theater
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The Apollo Theater

The Apollo Theater is one of the most renowned musical venues in the world. You would be hard-pressed to find another stage that had launched as many careers of great performers in the 20th century than the Apollo. Built in 1914, the theater was initially used for vaudeville performers in Harlem. It 1934 it was renamed ‘the Apollo’ and finally became open to African American patrons and performers. The theater soon became a second home to Jazz greats Louie Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. The Apollo eventually started an open talent show on a regular basis, which still remains to this day. Other legendary performers that got their start here include: Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Richard Pryor, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross.

Apollo Theater, 253 West 125th Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 531 5300

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It was was never much to look at. CBGB’s was narrow, dingy, small, overly hot, crammed with patrons with no room to spare, and the bathrooms were quite dirty. Not that any of that mattered to music enthusiasts who made their pilgrimage, year after year, to pay homage to the birthplace of punk, new wave, electronic, no wave and hardcore rock-and-roll. It opened in 1973 originally as a country and blues bar. One fateful day a year later, a burgeoning rock and roll band that went by the name Television, was looking for a place in the neighborhood to perform. The band propositioned its owner, Hilly Kristal, to play at the bar. The arrangement was simple: Television would play for free, provided they brought in some patrons to the show to drink at the bar. The rest is history.

CBCG, 176 Bowery, New York, NY, USA

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The Palladium/Academy of Music

It never had the fanfare or look of Radio City, nor the caché of The Fillmore or Madison Square Garden. Its seats were cramped, the acoustics awful, but The Academy of Music did provide a much-needed purpose to the city by being particularly resilient and resourceful. The Academy first opened in 1886 as an opera house, but was soon supplanted by both the Metropolitan and the Astor Plaza Opera Houses, and it was quickly forgotten. It scraped by until 1927 when it was converted into a movie theater. By the mid-1960s and on through the mid-1980s, it was transformed into a successful concert hall capturing up-and-coming and mid-level rock bands. The Rolling Stones, U2 and Bruce Springsteen all played there. By the late 1980s it had lost its luster. Studio 54 impresarios Steven Rubell and Ian Schrager grabbed the property and converted it into a spectacular disco called The Palladium. For several years, it was one the hottest nightclubs in the city, if not the country. Long lines of party-goers and big name celebrities snaked around the block clamoring to gain access. By the late 1990s the club’s popularity had waned considerably and soon closed its doors. The building was demolished shortly after. Today it is a student dorm for a local university.

The Palladium/Academy of Music, 126 East 14th Street, New York, NY, USA

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Fillmore East

The Fillmore East only lasted a little over three years, but during its short life span the theater was absolutely sublime. The wealth of talent that graced its stage nearly every night was staggering. The Fillmore was the ‘it’ place to play in New York. There were nights when there were up to three separate billings of top acts performing. The Fillmore shows also had a tendency to go all night long and into the early morning. Both theaters (a sister theater, Fillmore West, in San Francisco) were the brainchild of uber rock-and-roll promoter Bill Graham. In 1968, Graham opened both theaters to capture the burgeoning hippie social and music movements that were growing by leaps and bounds throughout the country. Graham got all the big bands to come to his theaters. Everybody who was anybody played at The Fillmore, from The Grateful Dead to Led Zeppelin. He said the reason for closing both theaters, at their peak in 1971, was because he was getting too old for the rock-and-roll theater game. He then moved primarily into concert promotion. Remains of the theater still exist today, in the form of a bank.

Fillmore East, 105 Second Avenue, New York, NY, USA

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The Village Vanguard

The Village Vanguard is one of the cradles of the Bebop, Free and Bop Jazz movements. When founder and club owner, Max Gordon, started the basement club in West Greenwich Village in 1935, jazz was not the least bit on his mind. The club was initially used as a sounding board for poetry readings, political discussion, folk music and, on occasion, blues music. By the early 1940s, jazz creeped up gradually, until it began to take over the entire nightly bill at the Vanguard. In the early to mid-1950s, jazz had exploded onto the scene. On any given night you could catch Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz or John Coltrane. The Vanguard, now run by Gordon’s wife, Lorraine, made a point of not touching a single hair on the club’s head, in order to maintain the Vanguard’s aura. Walking through its doors is like walking into a glorious time warp. A must-see for any enthusiast of this great American art form.

The Village Vanguard, 178 Seventh Avenue South, New York, NY, USA +1 212 255 4037

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The Bottom Line

The Bottom Line was a small, cozy club cobbled between the student dorms and halls of NYU in the West Greenwich Village. It was primarily known as a launching pad for the recording industry’s up-and-coming artists and next big hits. It opened in 1974 and closed in early 2004 due to financial duress. During those thirty years, it was a sanctuary to some of the world’s biggest musical stars that pined to play the occasional small stage show to experience an intimate performance. The Bottom Line was considered by many as the house that Bruce Springsteen built. His record company staged a big coming out party in 1975 for his landmark record, Born to Run. His engagement there consisted of over a week of now legendary shows that launched him into stardom. Today, any remains of the club are practically non-existent, just some offices and classroom space.

The Bottom Line, 15 West 4th Street, New York, NY, USA

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Webster Hall/The Ritz

Webster Hall has a rich, deep, and varied musical history spanning over one hundred and twenty five years. Built in 1886, the grand ballroom on the second floor was considered the building’s showcase. It was used initially as a room for hire. The ballroom was used for everything from union rallies and weddings to concerts and dances. For a time, during the 1950s into the late 1970s, the RCA recording label used the space as a launching pad for artists like Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Harry Belafonte. By 1980 it was reinvented into The Ritz, which catered to the pop rock sounds of New Wave and Dance music. By the late 1990s The Ritz’s management moved their operation over to the old haunts of Studio 54. Webster Hall owners renovated the facility in 2002 returning it to a musical venue for up-and-coming indie rock and electronic music acts. This event space has wonderful sight lines and acoustics, making in a must-see destination.

Webster Hall, 125 East 11th Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 353 1600

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The Beacon Theatre

The Beacon Theatre has always stood in the shadow of Radio City, which is a shame, since it also has a fabled past, rich with history and grand architecture. The interiors of the Beacon are lush and dazzling like Radio City, and it too has been registered as a national landmark. Built in 1929, in the Neo-Grecian Style, it was primarily used as a movie palace. It remained in that format until the mid-1970s, when it was converted into a concert hall. The Beacon has some advantages that its bigger brother doesn’t. The Beacon has delightful vantage points and sight lines for seeing shows, and it feels more intimate, given it is half the size of Radio City. It hosts award shows, television specials, entertainment extravaganzas and top-line concerts. The Beacon is probably most noted for its ability to provide artists long, extended playing engagements. Bands like Steely Dan and The Allman Brothers can, and usually do, play anywhere from seven to fourteen consecutive shows at a time, annually.

The Beacon Theatre, 2124 Broadway, New York, NY, USA +1 212 465 6500