Cartoon by Joey Perr

What’s Going On | The Vexed History of “Night Life” in The New Yorker

Phillip Golub

Museums shuttered, Broadway gone dark, orchestras furloughed—now that nothing remotely cultural is going on about town, The New Yorker’s “Goings On” section seems like a relic of a distant past. In fact, it already was one.

A feature that has run continuously since the magazine’s first issue, “Goings On” was last updated in 2016, when editor David Remnick announced a parade of new online features: a revolving display of articles, an interactive map, a video series, and “grids of listings based on category.” But for all the attention devoted to nifty digital ways to sort their events, The New Yorker’s editors have neglected to rethink the outdated way in which the “Goings On” categories are delineated in the first place. There’s “Art,” “Classical Music,” “Dance,” “Movies,” “Food & Drink,” “The Theatre,” and “Readings and Talks.” And then there’s “Night Life.”

In this schema, “Night Life” does not refer to clubs and parties (of little interest, apparently, to the magazine’s readership) or bars (covered under “Food & Drink”). Instead, the heading serves as a euphemism for non-classical music. In the past, a classical music/nightlife dichotomy may have reflected a broader social consensus on the distinction between high and low forms. But with such distinctions murky if not altogether irrelevant today, it is hard to ignore the inherent racism: in practice, the New Yorker maintains one category for a historically white kind of music, and another category for everything else.

As cultural institutions, universities, and publications—including The New Yorker itself—have relaxed their discriminatory attitudes toward music and art outside of the European tradition, the “Goings On” page has remained stuck in the proverbial mud. Whether it’s a stylized anachronism or a simple blind spot, no one seems to have seriously considered the troubling implications and often incoherent results of this system of categorization. Look to the magazine’s archives, and what you find is a history of editors’ awkward efforts to decide what should count as “Music,” what should be relegated to the grab bag of “Night Life,” and what should be excluded altogether.

February 21, 1925: The first issue of The New Yorker. There’s “Music,” but no “Night Life.” At places like the Cotton Club in Harlem, early pioneers of what would soon be called jazz play to white audiences for hefty entrance fees, but the revolution in modern music occurring uptown has yet to attract the notice of The New Yorker’s editors.

April 9, 1938: “Music” has been subdivided into “Recitals,” “Orchestras and Choruses,” and “Opera.” Big Bands playing swing (and other music then understood chiefly as “entertainment”) are newly categorized under “Dinner, Supper, and Dancing.” Listings specify not only which band or musicians will play, but also the dress code and whether food will be served. Segregated Midtown venues are advertised, but no mention of Harlem venues like the Savoy Ballroom, where a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald performed and integrated crowds danced the Lindy Hop.

September 23, 1944:  The “Dinner, Supper, and Dancing” heading carries a new parenthetical: “a listing of some places where you will find music, other entertainment, or both.” Oddly, the subheading reads, “Mostly for Music—No dancing, unless otherwise indicated.” Jazz greats James P. Johnson, Muggsy Spanier, and “Coleman Hawkins, his eminent saxophone, and his band, as well as Billie Holiday and her desultory songs” occupy the section, alongside shows boasting acrobats and “beautiful girls.” Meanwhile, The New Yorker has run a glowing three-part profile of Duke Ellington titled “The Hot Bach.”

October 5, 1946: “Dinner, Supper, and Dancing” has been subsumed under the more expansive category “Night Life,” and a new set of subheadings have appeared: “small and cheerful,” “big and brassy,” “supper clubs (entertainment but no dancing),” “mostly for music,” “mostly for dancing.” “Music” still refers primarily to operas, symphonies, and recitals, but there are exceptions for jazz played in certain approved venues: a “Jazz Concert” at Town Hall makes the cut.

August 10, 1963: Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Charlie Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and Thelonious Monk are all listed, but whether they’re classified as “Music” seems solely based on where they’re playing. Monk’s club, The Five Spot, is described as an “experimental research project,” while Webster’s venue, The Half Note, is “a neighborly bar whose denizens, all believers in furthering progress, generally keep looking for new sound barriers to scale.” Experimentalism and innovation notwithstanding, these events remain under “Night Life,” and Webster appears simultaneously in “Music” for a jazz concert at Philharmonic Hall.

November 12, 1973: “Night Life” is qualified, in a surprisingly candid subtitle, as “a highly arbitrary listing.” “Music,” apparently less arbitrary, has been subdivided into the dubious categories of “opera,” “orchestras and choruses,” “recitals,” and “jazz/folk/rock/etc.”

March 22, 1982: A new disclaimer underneath “Night Life” sharpens the section’s insult: “Musicians and night-club proprietors live complicated lives that are subject to last-minute change; it is therefore always advisable to call ahead.”

June 6, 1994: At last, the “Music” category has been honestly renamed “Classical Music.” “Night Life” is now sorted into “Concerts,” “Clubs,” and “Jazz and Standards.”

November 28, 2011: “Rock & Pop” has replaced both “Concerts” and “Clubs” as the new home for those living “complicated lives.”

In the March 30, 2020 issue: “Goings On” was limited, for the time being, to “a selection of culture to be found online and streaming.” But until this pandemic-spurred redefinition, the only listing options for non-classical music remained “Jazz And Standards,” “Rock And Pop,” and “Out Of Town”—all under the “Night Life” umbrella.

The contemporary results of the “Music”-”Night Life” distinction are often confounding. In 2019, a recital of MacArthur-winning pianist and composer Vijay Iyer’s music made it into the “Classical Music” category. The listing required the justification that although he “is most closely associated with the jazz world,” Iyer’s “work as a composer of concert pieces, many of them animated by socially conscious themes, make up a substantial part of his creative portfolio.”

The problem with categorizing artists like Iyer—whose work transcends genre but plainly deserves a more dignified heading than “Night Life”—is one that plagues all attempts to pigeonhole contemporary music. Other comparable event listings (in places like The New York Times and Time Out) organize musical events by genre, a strategy less starkly outdated than The New Yorker’s system. Still, merely elevating jazz or any other type of music to the status enjoyed by classical is insufficient. Listings for other art forms (dance performances, art shows, literary readings) are almost never grouped by genre, much less by their status as art versus entertainment. There is no way to make sense of this discrepancy other than as a legacy of the racial discrimination endemic to the music industry: musical genres were manufactured by gatekeepers with a cultural as well as financial interest in perpetuating segregation.

In the early decades of the twentieth century—the era of The New Yorker’s founding—minstrel shows cast a long shadow: white critics and audiences viewed black performers primarily as entertainers, rather than artists or musicians. Rejecting this role meant resisting a series of externally imposed categories that would continue to limit black musicians to “entertainment,” as opposed to art.” Saxophonist Sidney Bechet called jazz “a name the white people have given to the music.” For drummer Max Roach, the word called to mind “small dingy places, the worst kind of salaries and conditions that one can imagine… the abuse and exploitation of black musicians.”

Even as classifications like “jazz” and “bebop” kept black musicians and their work out of conservatories and concert halls, the same terms were exploited to boost record and ticket sales. At their outset in the 1920s and ’30s, record companies began marketing white artists on their main labels and black artists in “race catalogues” on subsidiary labels. When Duke Ellington—now recognized as one of the great composers and orchestrators of the last century—wanted to employ a symphony orchestra for the record Night Creature, executives told him he couldn’t work “out of his category.”

Duke Ellington at the Hurricane Club in NYC in 1943 / Gordon Parks

In 1949, Billboard editor Jerry Wexler coined the term “Rhythm & Blues” to replace “Race Music” as the descriptor for records by black artists. He went on to partner with Atlantic Records, where the rebranded “R&B” made the music more palatable to white audiences. The Grammys and Billboard still follow this racial split: “R&B” lives on, grouped today on the Billboard charts with another “race” category: hip-hop.

Today, “R&B” is no less restrictive than its more explicitly racialized forebears. Look back no further than 2019, when the artist Lil Nas X’s song “Old Town Road” hit the Billboard “Hot Country Songs” and “Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs” charts at the same time. Instead of acknowledging the emergence of what some called “country rap,” or more specifically, “country trap”—or rethinking its classification system in any way—Billboard simply removed the song from its country charts, claiming that “Old Town Road” did “not embrace enough elements of today’s country music.” As Lil Nas X argued, “The song is country trap. It’s not one, it’s not the other. It’s both. It should be on both.”

Although “R&B” and “country” persist in mainstream culture and the still profoundly segregated music industry, academic research continues to confirm that these categories have little to do with the actual lineage of twentieth-century American music. Among scholars, the myth of a clear racial boundary between “R&B” and “country” has dissolved amid new recognition that black people and black music exerted critical influence on the origins of what we call “country.”

These kinds of revisions are helping music history catch up to the reality that’s always been clear to musicians, but not necessarily to audiences—in part because of Billboard charts and listings like “Goings On.” I’ve been playing piano all my life and hold degrees in both classical composition and jazz performance, but I’d hesitate to call myself either a classical composer or a jazz musician. When pressed, typically by a non-musician, I’ll say I play “experimental improvised music” or that I write “new music with elements of improvisation.” In conversation with other musicians, though, I tend not to feel the need to sort myself by category at all. Instead, I’ll map out a lineage of influences whose work has shaped my own. This kind of resistance to musical categorization is hardly uncommon among my peers.

Yet instead of developing more accurate language and interpretive frameworks, too many critics rely on lazy descriptions like “genre-defying” or “genre-bending,” perpetuating an ahistorical perspective that ignores how music has always been written and performed—and how it’s being written and performed now. In the not so distant past, I went to see a Balkan brass band made up mostly of young Berklee-trained musicians, who embellished their music with blues vocabulary. Their admixture of styles is in part the result of younger musicians’ increasing exposure to diverse kinds of music online, and of the relaxing of rigid boundaries in musical training, but it’s also a story as old as music itself. “Balkan brass” is already a hybrid of military music and “traditional” Balkan folk music—which is itself the product of an earlier process of cross-pollination between Central European folk-dance music and the maqam traditions adopted when the region was under Ottoman rule. It makes sense to speak of lineages of influence, communities of musicians, and sociohistorical circumstances under which styles of music adapt and spread, but the very notion of self-contained, knowable musical “genres” collapses under the slightest scrutiny.

If modern genres come out of the logic of the European binary between high art and folk music, they were mapped, in the twentieth century, onto the American racial order. In 1944, Winthrop Sargeant, the New Yorker music critic who wrote one of the first histories of jazz, maintained that it “is not music in the sense that an opera or a symphony is music. It is a variety of folk music.” He went on, “Give him the chance to study, and the Negro will soon turn from boogie woogie to Beethoven.”

Some things have changed since 1944. And yet jazz and other music that is undeniably music, is still squarely in “Night Life”—a vestige of the then-dominant liberal attitude Sargeant espoused. If (to interpret it generously) “Night Life” is a twee throwback, it’s trading on mid-century affectations without owning up to the racism that shaped them.

The New Yorker casts itself as the ultimate arbiter of taste among the educated elite and those who aspire to join it. Its own website calls it “the most influential magazine in the world”: it tells you what you’re supposed to know about and what you’re supposed to like. “Goings On” is hardly the deciding factor in how art is defined or aesthetic genres are formulated; it’s nothing more than a roster of upcoming events in New York City. But it’s read far beyond the limits of the tri-state area, and it reifies an outdated worldview—one then assimilated even by casual browsers. If and when the bars, clubs, and parties return to New York, there will be more than ample material for a true nightlife section. It’s time to put the music in “Music.”

Phillip Golub is a pianist, improviser, and composer based in New York City. His first album, Axioms // 75ab, is out now on Biophilia Records.