Harlem’s casual jazz hub

September 21, 2007

Yesterday my videocamera and I spent the afternoon at Big Apple Jazz in Harlem, a combined souvenir shop, performance space and café launched by tour guide Gordon Polatnick in early 2006. Although not a musician himself, Polatnick has made the city’s jazz history his specialty, and can point out the legendary addresses and street corners where bodegas and fast food restaurants now stand. Billie Holiday was discovered just a block away from Big Apple Jazz, and the church on the corner of 132nd and Seventh Avenue used to be home to the famed Lafayette Theatre.

The block between 131st and 132nd Streets on Seventh Avenue wouldn’t, without the presence of Big Apple jazz, seem like worth the trip these days. Sure, the area is home to nifty pieces of history—the middle divider of 7th avenue, for example, is home to a stylized statue commemorating the Tree of Hope that stood there in the early 20th century(check out Polatnick’s site for a detailed history) –but few tourists or casual jazz fans are quite hardcore enough to trek uptown just to snap a photo of the now-unassuming block. Polatnick’s decision to buy a space in the area was undoubtedly strategic, because musicians, out-of town visitors and jazz enthusiasts now have a reason to literally visit the era when this art form ruled. Not to mention, it’s one of the few places in the city where musicians can mingle and casually jam while passersby sit down for a cup of coffee and hear excellent live jazz at no extra cost.

Polatnick also offers jazz tours around the city and can suggest a customized club itinerary based on your personal jazz taste. Big Apple Jazz hosts live music in its wood-paneled back room every day from 2pm on.

(image from harlemonestop.com)

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