It was a cold night in Harlem. The speakeasy was down some steps in the basement of a brownstone on West 133rd Street. We rang the bell and a small, neatly dressed black man with a gold pendant round his neck opened the door a fraction. “Is that you Gordon?”
Our guide stepped out from the shadows and into the thin line of light escaping from the doorway. “I got some guys here itching for good jazz. Think you can help out?”
In the back the band had set up on a small stage: A dusty upright against the wall, the sleek contours of the sax reflected in a solitary spotlight.
“Billie Holiday played here when she was a teenager hustling for gigs,” Gordon said, as the heavyset Venezuelan on piano struck the chords of the first number. “She treaded these same floors.”
From the speakeasies of Harlem to the nightclubs of the Lower East Side and the street corners of the Bronx, New York is a city that lives and breathes music. Almost every genre of popular music has found a home here down the years and many of the greatest musicians of all time have, like Holiday, called the city home at one time or another: Bob Dylan started out in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village; Madonna began her ascent to pop heaven in a crummy apartment in the downtown, juggling playing in local bands with shifts at a donut store.
The city has also witnessed many seminal moments in pop history – the birth of hip hop in the Bronx; The Beatles’ first appearance on American television recorded at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway; the arrest of Sid Vicious for the murder of his girlfriend at the Chelsea Hotel.
Tapping this rich vein of history takes a few days and is best accomplished in the company of one of the handful of tours focused on the musical heritage. The tours are subdivided by genre and usually presided over by amiable obsessives who can give you chapter and verse on the relative merits of bebop or the significance of Joey Ramone’s favorite brand of soft drink (it was Yoo-Hoo in case you were wondering).
Gordon Polatnik runs tours in Harlem. A softly spoken 50-year-old, his mild manner masks a lifelong passion for the neighborhood’s jazz history. He ran a café here for five years mainly, he admits, “so that I could have live jazz on the menu every day.”
His tours reflect this concern with the contemporary scene and feature at least two live performances. In between he led us through Harlem, along streets filled with distinguished brick rowhouses that date back over a century and which first welcomed African Americans driven out of midtown Manhattan in the years before World War I. This migration brought with it dance halls and gambling dens that jumped to the erratic new sounds of jazz and ragtime.
In the roaring twenties prohibition drove the liquor underground into the speakeasies on 133rd Street, known then as Swing Street. The new law did not dent the party, however, and society figures and celebrities such as Mae West clamoured to the area and to renowned venues like the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington’s orchestra were the house band.
These days the music venues are a little thinner on the ground although the Apollo Theater on 125th Street has been running a talent night every Wednesday for so long that it can boast that Billie Holiday got her big break there.
“The city is a proving ground,” said Gordon as we climbed back up to the street into the crisp air of the Harlem night. “Anyone can come here and get a gig. That’s the genius of New York.”
Standing in front of the downtown tenement Bobby Pinn held up a vinyl copy of Led Zepellin’s Physical Graffiti. Overhead the sky was clear blue and though the sun cast a shadow on the artwork it was still possible to see that the building on the album cover and the one across the street on St Mark’s Place were one and the same.
“Now,” said Bobby, a fast-talking New Yorker with bleached blond spikes and an inexhaustible supply of rock and roll anecdotes. “Which of you is gonna tell me what’s missing on the Zep album?”
Our small band of rock geeks scratched heads in shamed silence as yellow cabs clattered by and skinny young things in black jeans weaved past on the sidewalk.
The tenement on the album has a level missing, Bobby said. Apparently this cosmetic change was ordered by the band after it was discovered that one of the group’s drug dealers lived in the building. “Taking away the dealer’s floor somehow made sense. There’s heroin logic for you!”
Bobby began his rock tour in the heart of the East Village, formerly the Lower East Side. A hundred years back large swathes of European migrants made the streets around here the most densely populated on the planet. In the post-war years this beat-up slum was a perfect haven for penniless artists. Bobby showed us the St Mark’s Hotel, a flop house frequented by Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, who nicknamed the eaterie on the ground floor “the respectable bums cafeteria.”
A hundred yards or so down Second Avenue he pointed out the site of the Fillmore East, a concert venue where Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin vied for top billing alongside acts like The Who, who premiered their rock opera Tommy there. On the sidewalk a mosaic plastered onto the base of the traffic lights commemorates the venue, now a savings bank. The mosaic contains the names of bands that played the Fillmore as well as a shard of the guitar Pete Townsend smashed on stage during the Tommy show.
Today the Lower East Side is a sanitised version of its former self, replete with boutiques selling retro clothes and yoga centers (“What we’re rebelling about now is the influx of yoghurt,” said Bobby). But in the late seventies this area was awash with drugs and crime. Nor were these problems confined to the downtown. The city was bankrupt and a blackout in the summer of 1977 led to widespread looting.
Out of this chaos came creativity. The emerging music scenes of punk and new wave were at the vanguard of this creative surge. Homegrown bands like The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie cut their teeth in venues like the legendary CBGB on The Bowery. The Ramones played their first gig there “in front of seven people and the bar dog.”
At the same time disaffected teenagers uptown seized on the chaos to forge a new musical form. JDL is part of the Coldcrush Brothers, a rap act from the Bronx formed in 1979. “Back then the city was in disarray,” JDL said. “Slum landlords were burning down apartment blocks to get the insurance money. These places had no amenities and were deserted. As kids we held parties in them that turned into jams, never guessing this thing we did for fun would turn into a multi-billion dollar industry.”
The former DJ now leads tourists around his old neighbourhood showing them significant markers in the story of hip hop, including the location of the first documented hip hop party on Sedgwick Avenue.
“The reason New York is such a force in music is the diversity,” JDL said. “The drive to make it here is phenomenal. So many people come here to see it, to live it. It’s what makes this the greatest city in the world.”
A version of this story was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on May 21, 2011