Rhythm of the street

In New York City, Paul Willis visits the dance halls and speakeasies where musical history was forged.

It is a cold night in Harlem. The speakeasy is down the steps of a brownstone on West 133rd Street. We ring the bell and a small, neatly dressed man opens the door a fraction. "Is that you, Gordon?"

Stepping out of the shadows, our guide replies: "I got some guys here itching for good jazz. Think you can help?"

In the back, the band has set up on a small stage: a dusty upright against the wall, the contours of the sax reflected in a solitary spotlight. "Billie Holiday played here when she was a teenager," Gordon Polatnik, our guide, says, as the heavyset piano man strikes the chords of the first number.

From the speakeasies of Harlem to the street corners of the Bronx, New York is a city that lives and breathes music. Every genre of popular music has found a home here and many of the greats, such as Holiday, came here to make it big. Bob Dylan, for example, started out in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village, Madonna in a crummy apartment downtown. The city has witnessed seminal moments in pop folklore, such as the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx, and the Beatles' first appearance on American television.

Tapping this rich vein of history is most easily accomplished on one of the tours focused on New York's musical heritage. The tours are 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 favourite brand of soft drink.

Polatnik runs tours in Harlem. A softly spoken 50-year-old, his mild manner masks a lifelong passion for jazz. His tours reflect a concern with the contemporary scene and feature at least two live performances.

He leads us through Harlem, along streets filled with distinguished brick row houses that date more than a century to when African Americans came here, driven out of Midtown 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.

In the '20s, Prohibition drove liquor underground into the speakeasies on 133rd Street, known then as Swing Street. The new law did not dampen the party, however, and society figures and celebrities gathered at renowned venues such as the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington's orchestra was the house band.


These days, the music venues are thinner on the ground, but their influence remains strong. "The city is a proving ground," says Polatnik. "Anyone can come here and get a gig."

Standing on St Mark's Place, Bobby Pinn holds up a vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. The bright afternoon sun casts a shadow on the artwork but it is possible to see the tenement opposite repeated on the album cover.

"Now," says Pinn, a fast-talking New Yorker with bleached blond spikes and an inexhaustible supply of rock'n'roll anecdotes. "Whose gonna tell me what's missing on the Zep album?"

Our small band of rock geeks scratch heads in shamed silence. The tenement on the album has a level missing, Pinn says. Supposedly this cosmetic change was ordered after it was discovered one of the group's drug dealers lived in the building. "Taking away the dealer's floor somehow made sense."

Pinn begins his rock tour in the heart of the East Village. A hundred years ago, European migrants made the streets here the most densely populated on the planet.

In the postwar years, this slum was a perfect haven for penniless artists. Pinn shows us St Mark's Hotel, a flop house frequented by Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, who nicknamed the eatery on the ground floor "the respectable bums' cafeteria". Today, the Lower East Side is a sanitised version of its former self, filled with boutiques and yoga centres. ("What we're rebelling about now is the influx of yoghurt," Pinn says.)

In the late '70s, this area was awash with drugs and crime. The city was bankrupt and a blackout in the summer of 1977 caused widespread looting. From this chaos came creativity. Home-grown bands such as the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie cut their teeth in venues such as the legendary CBGB on the Bowery. The Ramones played their first gig here in front of seven people and the bar dog. At the same time, disaffected teenagers seized on the chaos to forge a new musical form. JDL, of Bronx rap act Coldcrush Brothers, now leads tourists around his old neighbourhood, showing them significant markers in the story of rap, including the location of the first documented hip-hop party.

"Back then, the city was in disarray," JDL says. "There were deserted apartment blocks where, as kids, we held parties that turned into jams, never guessing this thing we did would turn into a multibillion-dollar industry."


Getting there

Qantas has a fare to New York for about $2070 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. It is a non-stop flight to Los Angeles (about 14hr), then to New York (5hr). Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Touring there

Gordon Polatnick's Big Apple Jazz Tours include walking tours of Harlem and night tours featuring visits to at least two live jazz venues. Prices from $US30 ($28) to $US100. See bigapplejazz.com.

As well as the rock'n'roll tour of the East Village, Bobby Pinn offers tours of the West Village folk scene, where Bob Dylan started out, and a Manhattan Beatles tour. Tours from $US30.

See rockjunket.com.

Hush Hip Hop Tours has trips on foot and by bus to significant sites in rap history. The tours cover the boroughs of the Bronx, Harlem, Queens and Brooklyn and cost $US28 to $US78. See hushhiphoptours.com.