Guide at a Glance
New York City, New York, United States
Lifestyle, Music Tour
Harlem Juke Joint Tour
Get to Know NYC Jazz Guide Gordon Polatnick
Hi Gordon. Share with us how you discovered your passion for The Big Apple and jazz? Would you choose any other location or profession if you could do it all again?
I must be one of the most work-enthusiastic people in the whole of New York; not many people are as content as I am when it comes to going to work. Being a jazz tour guide is where the happiness is, and I’m so pleased I found this dream profession almost two decades ago. Guiding started as a clever way to have companionship while exploring the hidden jazz haunts of Harlem and Greenwich Village, and it just took off from there. My nightly explorations were fueled by the passion to discover the next Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, and to watch them develop over the decades as they moved from neighborhood dives to international festivals. With over 300 places to hear live jazz in New York, I’m pretty sure it’s the best place to be, but I do love New Orleans too!
I’ve heard you’re quite the world traveler. How did you end up in New York?
The travel bug bit me young, so I raced through high school and hit the road at 17. Before starting college, I spent 6 months in Israel, and before getting my B.A., I exhaustively traveled the globe, and I even studied in Nigeria. Although I don’t think I could ever tire of traveling, I decided to establish myself in New York after graduating college partly because I grew up just outside the city, partly because I have heritage here (Ellis Island grandparents, and a Brooklyn-born mother and father), and partly because I had developed a strong attraction for the Bohemian lifestyle of the Greenwich Village art and music scenes. My first tour guiding job entailed galloping through midtown Manhattan with a carriage…and horse named Kevin the Farter. And it’s all thanks to that horse (and that name…) that I’m here to this day; memories of Kevin the Farter, mixed with New York’s phenomenal jazz scene, are just too priceless to forfeit.
What’s been the biggest highlight working for Big Apple Jazz Tours?
In 2005, I realized a long-imagined dream and opened a jazz café on the most important jazz street of Prohibition-era-Harlem. We presented local musicians all day long in the back room at EZ’s Woodshed, and we sold their CDs, jazz books, fine art and t-shirts in the front room. EZ’s Woodshed attracted great musicians like Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano, Hakim Jami, Eric Reed and Wycliffe Gordon, and superstar entertainers and guests from around the world. Unfortunately, 2008 was not a kind year business-wise, and we had to shut the joint down. For my tour company, and for the sake of doing something positive for the community, it was great having EZ’s Woodshed, and it was particularly great when jazz celebrities showed up out of the blue. For example, one cold night, Chubby Checker ambled in and hung out for an hour, thrilling everyone. For me, the biggest highlight of being a jazz guide here is that, weekly, I get to experience the thrill of the unexpected: weekly, some of the best jazz players in the world drop, unannounced, into New York’s clubs, blowing everyone away with their talent.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
Behind the scenes is a lot of preparation. I scan the internet to gather tips on who is playing where, information I then use to set up a unique itinerary based on available talent, with an eye toward variety; I want to ensure each tour group hears different styles of great jazz. To help satisfy my clients, and to make sure they get the most out of what may be a short visit in New York for them, I also try to find out as much as possible about their individual tastes and interests before they arrive. Efficiency’s the name of the game!
What’s one of the coolest experiences you’ve ever had on a guided tour?
Once, an older couple from a Mediterranean country signed up for a tour, and although it was blizzardy, they were still enthusiastic to test out the scene (three cheers to them). The gentleman was soft-spoken and quiet, but he let on that he was a pianist and would enjoy playing if the opportunity should arise. Most of the Harlem clubs we were touring that night have a wonderful policy of inviting guests to join the band, so we got this gentleman onstage to play. And how fortunate we were: He dove right into a tune with great gusto, and he trusted the band to figure out what was happening and jump in when they were ready. It was astounding: a great live jazz moment that made the evening. Later, I found out that my guest was one of the most well-known and respected jazz personalities in his country! The gentleman enjoyed my tour so much he wrote me a very kind and generous online review, a review I cherish.
Since we all know that no job is perfect, would you mind sharing some of the downfalls of being a guide in New York?
When it comes to guiding, only one thing really makes me fret, and that’s not fulfilling my #1 priority to make my guests feel comfortable. With this, the problem is that I like to go to small, local dives that are often packed (these are the real deal places), which means seating is not guaranteed. Another point of contention is that jazz musicians are often on their own schedules, which means the sets don’t always begin and end when they should, in turn potentially altering other plans for the night. Eighteen years later and I still find the balancing act hard of trying to seamlessly move the tour group from venue to venue in a laid-back yet timely fashion while offering interesting and energetic commentary, answering questions thoroughly, and snatching up any open seats that are magically around!
As an experienced guide, can you think of any tips people should know before going on a guided tour?
I like my guests to feel they have a hand in how the tour will go. In turn, I love to know why they chose this tour, and what they are hoping to hear, see, and experience, which I’ll therefore do my best to satisfy. For example, if I know from the start someone is in love with Billie Holiday, I make sure the tour goes by sites that are important to her story, and I will also take more time to discuss anecdotes from her biography. In addition, I like to know if people are absolute beginners or well-versed in jazz music and history; often there is a combination of participants’ levels of involvement, and since I want everyone to feel included, knowing this information helps me to calibrate my commentary most appropriately. In truth, jazz is improvisation, and even though I don’t play jazz, I enjoy the improv. It’s what keeps me going and keeps me engaged night after night, just like a musician. In other words, I hope that all guests on my tours are open to a little improv too (wink wink).
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Everyone who has been to Cuba tells me that I NEED to go. The things that I love about the music scenes in New Orleans and New York City are supposedly even more readily available in Cuba. I may have to learn to dance before going though!
Gordon Polatnick founded his company in 1997 after a lifetime of adventurous world travel and working as a tour guide throughout the Americas. His experiences include: owning Harlem’s first jazz day club, EZ’s Woodshed; producing the Underground Big Apple Jazz Festival; managing jazz piano master Jean-Michel Pilc; writing and photographing for jazz magazines; and walking across the USA for peace.