Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Interview: Robert Lamont Talks About TIN PAN ALLEY DAY and The Birth of America's Music Industry

pixeltracker

Historic Tin Pan Alley Celebrated with a Free Concert September 23rd

BWW Interview: Robert Lamont Talks About TIN PAN ALLEY DAY and The Birth of America's Music Industry

This coming Saturday, October 23 is officially Tin Pan Alley Day in NYC. As a physical destination, Tin Pan Alley is five buildings at 47-55 W. 28th St. near the Flatiron building in the neighborhood called "NoMad," north of Madison Square Park. But Tin Pan Alley is much more than a physical destination. It is a state of mind. It is the spot where the American music industry was born. From the 1890s to around 1910, this block of publishing houses and agent's offices was where you went if you had written a song that you wanted the world to hear it. Many of our most illustrious Broadway composers got their start plugging songs in the offices of Tin Pan Alley including Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Jerome Kern.

The five still existing buildings on this block were designated a NY historical landmark in 2019. But before any celebrations could be planned. COVID sent NY into 18 months of isolation. But this Saturday, the long-awaited celebration concert is happening. And it's a doozy. A collection of amazing talent including Marilyn Maye, Danny Bacher, Aaron Lee Battle, Ken Bloom, Klea Blackhurst, Jim Brochu, Richard Carlin, Eric Comstock, Natalie Douglas, Cassidy Ewert. Willy Falk, DeWitt Fleming, Jr., Eric Yves Garcia, Anita Gillette, Vince Giordano, Robert Lamont Gabrielle Lee, Larry Marshall, Sanborn McGraw, Jill O'Hara, Jeannie Otis, Jennifer Poroye, Steve Ross, Billy Stritch, TADA! Youth Theater Ensemble, Tony Waag & The American Tap Dance Foundation Ensemble, and Terry Waldo & The Gotham City Band, among many others.

The history of Tin Pan Alley will be addressed in remarks by noted authorities including author Ken Bloom, Columbia University historic preservation professor Andrew Dolkart, and Harlem historian John Reddick.

The outdoor concert is free and will take place on the Flatiron North Plaza between Madison Spare Park and Eataly from noon to 4 pm, Saturday, October 23rd, with a rain date on the 24th.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Robert Lamont, who is the Musical Coordinator of the Tin Pan Alley Day Celebration. Robert was also kind enough to send along photos from his rehearsal with composer/record producer Jennifer Poroye and jazz legend Marilyn Maye, who will be featured together in Saturday's concert.

BWW Interview: Robert Lamont Talks About TIN PAN ALLEY DAY and The Birth of America's Music Industry
Photo by Maryann Lopinto

Ricky Pope

Hi Robert. Welcome to Broadway World. How are you?

Robert Lamont

Well, I'm very excited about a story on Tin Pan Alley.

Ricky Pope

I'm pretty excited about that too. It sounds like a very exciting event you have coming up. I was wondering if you could explain to the readers about your two organizations, The Tin Pan Alley American Popular Music Project and the Flatiron 23rd St Partnership. What are they and what do they do?BWW Interview: Robert Lamont Talks About TIN PAN ALLEY DAY and The Birth of America's Music Industry

Robert Lamont

Sure. The designation of the five buildings on 28th street has been a long time in coming. I believe, George Calderaro, our director started this five or six years ago with a couple of other people. I came on board in 2017 for the first Tin Pan Alley concerts that we had right on 28th street. We did about three hours of music. We got Steinway to sponsor us and we had a lovely informal performance from Steinway artists and myself, and a few other speakers and entertainers. And that was the gestation of the concert that's coming up on the 23rd. In 2019, we made a presentation through the Landmarks Commission. We had a whole bunch of celebrities and music critics and people that were really supporting and vouching for the importance of saving these five buildings. I mean, this is the heart and soul of American musical culture. From the 1890s through 1910, when Tin Pan Alley really thrived, this was the beginning of the American popular music industry. And from that, you got the big band era and how Americans interacted with each other in ballroom dancing and big swing dancing. Later on. of course, Tin Pan Alley had a reciprocal relationship with Vaudeville and certainly Broadway because the theater district was right in that area called the Tenderloin. I think I'm digressing a little bit. So anyway, we got this landmark status. We had planned to do a big celebration, then, of course, COVID came along. So we're finally celebrating this landmark status. And the committee that pushed this along under director George Caderaro is sort of a group of critics and historians and preservationists. And we have formed what we're calling, The American Popular Music Project to promote Tin Pan Alley and its legacy. And why should people care about it for the future? Who cares about an old building that was built in the 1850s and hasn't had a music publishing house in over a hundred years? Because of what it represents. The other day Marilyn Maye was in rehearsal and she said "This is the heart and soul of American popular music." It represents the scrappiness and the innovation of these people that formed these early publishing companies. That pervades all through American entertainment today.

Ricky Pope

So with that explanation of why Tin Pan Alley is such an important part of American music, why did it take so long to get these buildings on the New York Historical Register of Places?

BWW Interview: Robert Lamont Talks About TIN PAN ALLEY DAY and The Birth of America's Music Industry

Robert Lamont

Excellent question. New York has gotten better at saving its landmarks, no doubt. That movement started in the sixties with the demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station. But I think there are so many landmarks in New York and so many famous people have lived and worked here. You could go to any block and find something. So the Landmarks Commission is constantly busy. I think it just takes time. And certainly, the impetus for saving these particular buildings was that a developer was going to tear them down. I'm sure, you know that Chelsea has changed so much in the last 10 years with a lot of high highrises going up. So a lot of preservationists knew what was going on and they just jumped to the task of trying to save these buildings. We have them to thank for it.

Ricky Pope

Well, that's true. Your event is happening on the very site of one of New York's great preservationist losses. The original Stanford White Madison Square Garden sat almost exactly where you're giving your concert.

Robert Lamont

Yeah, absolutely. I am also a veteran educator for the New York City Department of Education. I'm a big proponent of helping young people understand that they too have a role in the American music industry and the American theatre industry. I would take my kids from Gramercy Artsl up to 28th street and I'd point these buildings out. A lot of them were writing music and focusing on YouTube. So I would bring Tin Pan Alley home to them by saying "Here is where a 15-year-old George Gershwin dropped out of high school" and then prefacing it with "please don't drop out of high school." I would tell then that this guy worked as a teenager on Tin Pan Alley writing his own songs and using the latest technology of the day to promote himself. Gershwin's earliest songs weren't actually published as sheet music, but first appeared on piano rolls. This guy had dreams. And he had drive and he put his stuff in front of the public and look what happened to him. And you guys are doing the same thing, so go for it. And that really brought it home to them. If you open the door of history to young people, they are really interested You just have to have a way to make it come alive for them. And so that is really the purpose of the American Popular Music Project, to bring this alive for the next generation of people.

BWW Interview: Robert Lamont Talks About TIN PAN ALLEY DAY and The Birth of America's Music Industry

Ricky Pope

This may be a silly question, but what's in the buildings today? Are there museums in these buildings or are they serving other functions?

Robert Lamont

We do not own any of the buildings. So they're serving other functions. It's just down the street from the Flower District. There's one of the buildings where they sell chachkas. I think another one does those clothing. If you look up, you can see the architecture of the buildings. You can just picture those buildings, with the windows open on a summer day with no air conditioning and all the piano sounds raining down on 28th Street and creating a cacophony. Apparently, a reporter at the time created the name Tin Pan Alley. The buildings have really interesting architecture. They were brownstones that were converted into businesses. Every floor was a different publishing house or agent.

Ricky Pope

I know that these buildings are on the New York Register of Historic Places. Are they also nationally recognized as historic places?

Robert Lamont

Not yet.

Ricky Pope

Tin Pan Alley is a national treasure, as well as a New York City treasure.BWW Interview: Robert Lamont Talks About TIN PAN ALLEY DAY and The Birth of America's Music Industry

Robert Lamont

You're absolutely right. New York was actually one of several cities that was a major driver of American culture at that point. There were major publishing houses in both in Detroit and in Chicago and even St. Louis. But 28th street is unique because there were never as many publishing houses in those other cities as there were on this very street.

Ricky Pope

Tell me about the concert itself. I especially want to know how you gathered this very impressive roster of artists to perform.

Robert Lamont

I think we are so lucky because everybody in the music industry knows how important Tin Pan Alley is. So it was easy to get these people to say yes because they all love the music. They all really wanted to be associated with this celebration because it is a major event. We are going to have Anne del Castillo from the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment and Eric Bottcher, the City Council candidate, who was really instrumental in helping us create the case for the Landmarks Commission. They're going to be talking about how important this day is. And there's also going to be Klea Blackhurst and Vince Giordano. It's just such a delight to work with these people. I'm accompanying Marilyn Maye on a piece. We're pairing her with a young artist, Jennifer Poroye, who is an aspiring composer and a record producer. They're doing "Under the Bamboo Tree" which you may know from the movie Meet Me in St. Louis, and the Johnson Brothers' "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which technically isn't a Tin Pan Alley song. But the Johnson Brothers were so important. They were part of a major publishing house that was down the street called Gotham-Attucks that was owned and run by African-Americans.

Ricky Pope

Really?

Robert Lamont

Yeah. Along with the largely Jewish immigrant industry that formed these companies, African-Americans played a huge role on 28th street. You've got people like Bert Williams and all these wonderful African-American composers taking the ball into their own hands saying they were not going to be taken advantage of by white publishing houses that had previously not even paid them royalties for some great songs. So that's what we're doing with Marilyn Maye and Jennifer Poroye. I'm very excited about that.

BWW Interview: Robert Lamont Talks About TIN PAN ALLEY DAY and The Birth of America's Music Industry
Photo by Maryann Lopinto

Ricky Pope

And I assume we'll just be hearing a lot of tunes from the Great American Songbook?

Ricky Pope

I'm glad you brought that up. The American Songbook of course developed out of the Tin Pan Alley era. We don't generally think of songs pre-1910 as American Songbook stuff. But yeah. Vince Giordano is doing Harold Arlen's "Accentuate the Positive" as the kickoff to the pre-show. We've got Natalie Douglas doing "Love For Sale" by Cole Porter. The latest song represented in the show is Irving Berlin, who also, of course, worked on Tin Pan Alley as a teenager. Anita Gillette is going to do his "The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous" from 1962's Mr. President. And then she's going to talk about her relationship with Irving Berlin and her memories. . So it's the whole gamut and it all connects from the 1890s up to the present day.

Ricky Pope

Of course. Well, Robert, thank you for talking to me. It's been a pleasure.

Robert Lamont

Oh my goodness, the pleasure is all mine.

BWW Interview: Robert Lamont Talks About TIN PAN ALLEY DAY and The Birth of America's Music Industry
Photo by Maryann Lopinto

Tin Pan Alley Day is sponsored in part by the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Foundation, the J. Rosamond Johnson Foundation, The Lambs Foundation, the Sam Ash Music Corporation, and PianoPiano.

Related Articles View More Cabaret Stories

Buy at the Theatre Shop

T-Shirts, Mugs, Phone Cases & More

Industry Classifieds


From This Author Ricky Pope