The Apollo, Uptown’s Showbiz Incubator

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

The exhibition “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” which opens on Tuesday at the Museum of the City of New York, really ain’t anything like the real thing, but that is not really its fault. The “real thing” in this case is almost beyond the reach of a museum show. It is to be found not in Louis Armstrong’s trumpet or Miles Davis’s flugelhorn, or James Brown’s black jumpsuit studded with rhinestones spelling “Sex,” or Ella Fitzgerald’s orange dress or Michael Jackson’s fedora (all of which are on display here), but in the music those performers made while wearing these clothes and playing these instruments.

The real thing is suggested in the exhibition’s subtitle — “How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment” — because the music that was made at that relatively nondescript 1,500-seat theater on 125th Street in Harlem really did transform American popular-music culture in the 20th century. A habitat and an incubator, the Apollo has also been one of the few institutions in which black American musical culture was consistently nurtured over the course of 75 years.

Carnegie Hall achieved its stature through architectural beauty; its warm, revealing acoustics; and a growing heritage of magnificent performances. The Apollo achieved its stature because of where it is — on the edge of one of America’s great black urban neighborhoods — and because of who appeared there during an era that went from vaudeville to hip-hop, from racial segregation to economic gentrification....

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