Friday, August 22, 2014


   Artie Shaw was one of the most popular bandleaders of the Swing Jazz era. A succession of bands he led with his gliding clarinet produced massive hits in the late 30s and his radio audiences and record sales rivaled and sometimes surpassed the popularity of his rival, the great Benny Goodman. He was selling millions of records in 1938 and '39, touring to raucous crowds around the country. He led the most popular band in the nation. And then, he suddenly broke up the band, retreated to Mexico and went quiet.
   He would form another, smaller band shortly thereafter but the pattern of break-up and then diverting to a new direction would define Shaw's life and career. He defined the archetype of the reluctant star who disdains his success, spurns his fans, rejects commercial opportunities, pursues a unique artistic vision, constantly seeks new artistic ground, and ultimately gives it all up without a thought to his legacy or future career. It's no wonder that in a musical genre defined by good times and happy feet, his self-penned theme song would be a stark, droning, macabre number called "Nightmare."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Broadway Alternatives: The Bell House

   Few venues in the city are as eclectic as The Bell House. The venue stands in a former printing press building near the banks of Brooklyn's industrial waterway, the Gowanus Canal. The location might be uninspiring (unless fetid sewer water inspires you) but the ramshackle old industrial buildings bristle with creative energy. Up the hill in either direction might be the fine homes and well-to-do families of Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, but down in the valley it's more freewheeling. The Bell House anchors the neighborhood with some great entertainment for folks who aren't impressed by bright lights and expensive bottle service.
   In the front of the venue is a large and charming lounge. The old garage doors open wide onto the street allowing people to gather around outside on pleasant nights. Inside, sofas and lounge chairs allow everyone to hang out before the shows start. It's a striking thing about the best venues in the city that they all have comfortable places to hang out separate from the venue. It helps when the front bar is a simple neighborhood place that you'd want to hang out.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The 9/11 Memorial is now truly open

  The President and other dignitaries were in New York yesterday to celebrate the opening of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. The museum is a crucial part of the overall World Trade Center project, especially as the years pass and the generation born after 9/11 grows older. It is always somewhat shocking to think of the high school sophomores and juniors on my tours and to realize that they don't remember 9/11. The museum will bring a visceral and personal reminder of the stories of New York in late 2001 and what people experienced on that day and in the months after for generations of young people. But up on the plaza above the museum, where the memorial's sunken pools mark the site of the Twin Towers, something even more important happened with no fanfare at all. A few small lines of fences were removed.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Pizza Wars: Juliana's, Grimaldi's, and the unanswerable question.

  "What is the best pizza in New York?" The question tantalizes the lips of locals and visitors in New York City alike. The siren call of melting cheese, fresh basil, charred dough, and tangy tomato sauce beckons all who walk the streets of here. A slice of pizza is the food most associated with New York City. And it should be. After all, it was an Italian immigrant to New York named Gennaro Lombardi who received the license to operate the country's first pizzeria in 1905 at 53 1/2 Spring Street, in what was then Little Italy and today is called NoLiTa (short for North of Little Italy). The clientele was mostly Napolean immigrants like Lombardi who appreciated the humble, flavorful tastes of home. Pizzas were especially appreciated on Fridays when the Catholic community shunned meat.  His restaurant survived until 1984 when an economic downturn shuttered the business. But it has since reopened though it moved to a new location on Spring Street. Today, Lombardi's is owned by John Brescio, who partnered with childhood friend Jerry Lombardi (grandson of Gennaro) to open the new location down the block from the original in 1994.

The original Lombardi's

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Broadway Alternatives - Brooklyn Night Bazaar

   When you tell your friends and family you are coming to New York, they will inevitably exclaim "You have to see a show on Broadway!" Broadway shows have the biggest stars, the best production values, and highest budgets of any theaters in America. But what if that style of high-gloss theater isn't your taste? What if the idea of hearing showtunes all night makes you want to pull off your ears? Will spending hundreds of dollars on theater tickets ruin your travel budget? Should you go anyways just because it's so iconic? Heck, no! There is entertainment in NYC to suit every taste and it is all world class, or at least a lot of fun. So what else can you do?

Brooklyn Night Bazaar
Corner of Banker Street and Norman Ave. Greenpoint, Brooklyn
G train to Nassau Ave.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Central Park in the Dark

   New Yorkers are scared of the dark. We are used to the bright lights and the big city. Not every block burns as bright as Times Square, but even quiet streets are bathed in the sickly orange glow of the city's sodium-vapor lamps. In the countryside, residents complain about light pollution and spend evenings gazing at the stars. But in the city, the darkness seems counter to the natural order of things. The shadows don't feel right. Perhaps that's why Central Park, even today can still feel unsettling after dark. Central Park is in fact extremely safe. Crime is nearly unheard of in the park today. So why should it still feel slightly menacing? Maybe it's just the stories from the 70s and 80s when the newspapers were awash with headlines of Central Park muggings and assaults. Maybe it's just the quiet hush of the park and the shadows dancing in the limbs of the grand trees. Whatever the reason, the park at night can still be quiet and eerie.
   It is that strange, unsettled feeling that is evoked in Charles Ives' Central Park in the Dark. Ives is one of the most independent and unique musicians on my list. He was born in Danbury, Connecticut, the son of a bandleader. Charles' father George would be the most important musical influence in his life. George was no ordinary bandleader, he experimented with polytonal composition, alternative tunings, and other musical experimentation. Charles even recalled an instance where his father had two bands play a different song on opposite sides of the town square and then march towards each other to create a blending of two unrelatred pieces. Charles would also play organ in churches around Connecticut, and in his days at Yale he would compose popular marches while at the same time being a standout athlete.

Ives in 1909, shortly after composing Central Park.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How to find a bathroom on the run

   As a tour guide, I have to remember a lot of information. I've got to know how deep the harbor is and what the filling in a cannoli is made with. I have to know crime rates and cool clubs. I have to be able to explain how to ride the subway, eat a slice of pizza like a local, and even what kind of sharks are in the East River (young kids have awesome questions). But there is one question that comes with an urgency no other query can equal. "Where is the nearest bathroom?"