Keeping track of the New York jazz scene’s shifting world of hole-in-the-wall clubs and after-hours jam sessions is a task that defies the conventional guide book. It requires an addiction to the music, a willingness to nose out new venues on the basis of vague rumors and recommendations, and a very late bedtime.
Gordon Polatnick, a 43-year-old Astoria resident, has all of these traits—along with a deep-seated need to tell others what he’s learned. In 1997, he started Big Apple Jazz Tours, offering to personally guide his customers to whatever niche of the New York scene they request. While he’s still a standard New York tour guide by day, he now spends as many as five nights a week introducing jazz fans to little-known venues.
Polatnick is as bohemian as the music he loves. His life story is like one long free-form jazz improvisation. Sitting at the kitchen table of his Astoria house, he traced the circuitous route from his high-school days in Great Neck on Long Island to his current status as the unofficial docent of the world’s foremost jazz city.
First, there was the six-month trip to Israel after high school, where he received his first training as a tour guide. “I knew I wanted to be the guy who knew stuff, and showed other people what I knew,” he said.
While studying at Tufts University in Boston, Polatnick spent a term in Nigeria studying ethnomusicology, and another taking classes on a cruise ship that sailed around Asia and Europe. After college, he worked for a record company in Boston, managed a restaurant in the East Village and then, in 1983, landed his first real job as a tour guide, driving a horse and buggy around New York.
“I loved it. I remember chariot races down Fifth Avenue with drunk Polish guys, and pitching quarters at garbage cans that were lit up,” he said. “Nowadays, it’s different.”
Polatnick’s search for a vocation went along with his exploration of different musical genres. As a teenager, he had listened to psychedelic rock groups like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Starship. But he also had some exposure to different fare.
“There were these things we called fern bars: you’d drink wine, and there’d be fern plants hanging there, and a jazz trio,” he said. “If you really wanted to impress a date, you went there.”
Though jazz was still foreign to him, he was drawn to the counterculture scene that surrounded it. “If people started talking revolutionary politics and wearing berets, I was in,” he said.
Gradually, Polatnick began to learn more about jazz, taking courses and listening closely in order to understand what the musicians were doing. And the more he listened, the more he liked it.
But Polatnick was not yet ready to settle down. He took a DJ class, spent eight months in 1986 walking from Los Angeles to New York as part of a nuclear disarmament march, and then sold tie-dyed T-shirts to Army commissaries. “They didn’t want the ones with the peace signs,” he recalled.
Still restless, he moved to California, where he lived on a houseboat in Sausalito, and tried to write a screenplay. After six years there, he was ready for another change.
“I was living on this rickety houseboat. It was leaking and sinking, and I was allergic to it because of the mold. I was pretty much down to my last dime, I had sciatica, I couldn’t move, I didn’t have insurance.”
Polatnick decided to return to tour-guiding. He found a job leading bus tours around the southwest, and eventually moved on to tours of South America. In 1996, he moved back to New York and got a license to lead tours. At night, he began exploring the city’s bustling jazz scene.
New York’s jazz venues range from the new concert hall at Lincoln Center, where top tickets go for $150, to the parlor of Marjorie Eliot’s Sugar Hill apartment, where fans can pull up a folding chair on Sunday afternoons and listen to local musicians play. Besides the price difference, Lincoln Center shows are reviewed in all major New York newspapers and touted in tourist guide books, while news of Eliot’s recitals is spread mostly through word-of-mouth.
During his nocturnal wanderings, Polatnick began to stumble across more and more of these hidden gems scattered throughout the five boroughs, where talented musicians play in relative obscurity. Within minutes of his Astoria home, he found sizzling jazz at such unlikely venues as Sac’s Pizza on Broadway at 29th Street and Le Sans Souci on Broadway at 44th Street.
Polatnick soon realized that combining his tour-guide skills with his jazz knowledge might be a great business opportunity—and a chance to have someone else pay for all the jazz he was going to see anyway.
His offerings start at $60, including drinks and cover charges, for a tour of Harlem jazz spots, and go up to $200 for the “All Nighter,” an eight-hour romp starting at a big-name club like the Blue Note and continuing to at least three other hidden haunts around the city. No commissions are exchanged with the clubs or musicians, so Polatnick’s role is as unadulterated expert, bringing together musicians and audiences.
According to Paul Stash of Smoke, a club on Broadway at 106th Street, there are no other comparable services available in New York. While Smoke sometimes hosts other tours, these are mainly groups from overseas who are seeking a New York experience, but don’t really care what show they see. Polatnick, on the other hand, checks the weekly listings and takes people from club to club, Stash said.
“He’s really the guy who has the best insight into what's going on around town.”
With Polatnick’s wife expecting a baby in May, the erstwhile bohemian is for the first time considering the benefits of a more conventional work schedule. He envisions a store-front operation where jazz fans and musicians can interact, a public practice space that would bring greater visibility to all the nightly jazz performances whose current obscurity he profits from.
Whether or not this comes to pass, Polatnick seems to have finally reached his destination, finding enough adventure in the byways of New York’s jazz scene to satisfy his wanderlust.