EZ's Woodshed

by Tom Greenland

Appears in March 2007 All About Jazz - New York

 

In jazz jargon, woodshedding refers to the time honored practice of learning one’s instrument—i.e. developing “chops” on your “axe.” Gordon Polatnick, a jazz jack-of-all-trades, opened up EZ’s Woodshed over a year ago in Harlem in this same spirit, providing a performance space where local musicians, seasoned veterans and aspiring neophytes alike, can gather to woodshed, promote, and network. “As a jazz fan, I wanted a place where I would feel like this is where I would want to hang out, because I’m that into it.” Located in the heart of what was once known as “The Stroll,” a meeting place in the 20s and 30s for Harlem artisans, where musicians came to mix, mingle, get gigs, and score; where once grew the Tree of Hope; just down the block from the original “Swing Street” (133rd), packed with speakeasies in the heyday of the Prohibition; and one block further from the former Monroe’s Uptown House, a birth spot for bebop—EZ’s is keeping the tradition alive as a crossroads for cultural commerce.

 

            The Woodshed sits in the back of Big Apple Jazz, a store, café, and gallery featuring all manner of jazz related items. As an active jazz tour guide, Polatnick has been taking people out to hear local musicians in out-of-the-way places that fall under the radar of Let’s Go: New York and the like. Inspired by the rich history and by the wealth of talented but relatively unknown artists performing in the neighborhood venues, Polatnick sought a space where all of these activities could come together: “We wanted to be in that mix, ’cause if you walk down the street now, it’s hard to tell of all that history, but we wanted to be one of those establishments that helped remind people of all the jazz that happened here…as a tour guide I always told these stories, and then I found a location open—that’s where I wanted to be.”

 

Aided and abetted by his considerable connections within the Harlem community, Polatnick quickly attracted a dependable crew of performers and patrons to his venue: “I got to know a lot of the musicians and the clubowners and the people that were jazz fans, so without a lot of hoopla or email blasts or anything like that, people started to know that I was over here, and came in to support the scene as best as they could.” In addition to locals, the venue also hosts a steady stream of tourist traffic, many alerted to its existence through the store’s website (bigapplejazz.com), which boasts a comprehensive list of venues in the New York area, complete with links and recommendations for do-it-yourself pilgrims coming to the jazz Mecca.

 

            Unconventionally, most of the Woodshed’s performances take place in the afternoon or early evening, from 2-8 p.m., with a later set offered on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; those in search of improvisative healing can find it seven days week, 6-hours a day, no charge. Grassroots oriented fans who, as Polatnick puts it, “like truth beyond the sizzle,” can hear high caliber creativity from a variety of journeymen jazzers. For example, singer Leeolive Tucker, the “Harlem Diva,” and keyboardist Roger Anderson attract a loyal and enthusiast crowd on Thursday nights; forty-year latin jazz veteran Bobby Porcelli blends his alto with Peter Brainin’s tenor on Mondays; and Brainin returns on Wednesdays with tenorist David Bixler. Pianist/vocalist Rudel Drears, house pianist at (his mother) Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment series, is a frequent contributor, as are up-and-comers such as vocalists Alicia Morrissey (often accompanied by the facile fingers of Bob Mocarsky), Melody Breyer-Grell, and Jan Forney; pianists Kelly Powers and Skip Wilkins; trombonist Dave Gibson; and the two hot combo platters: Punjab & Company, and Joseph Perez & Technical Blak Sextet. On March 4th, the pyrotechnical Jean Michel-Pilc will drop by the shed to wax solo.

 

            Another unique aspect of EZ’s is its family friendly atmosphere: parents can bring their kids in on weekend mornings for programs that teach about history of the neighborhood, the history of jazz, or just to listen to live music; music lessons and jamming opportunities are also available for needy youngsters through an orphan’s support organization, and once a month, the Harlem Art Alliance gathers to hobnob and brainstorm. The Big Apple Jazz store in the front of the venue carries cds by local artists, as well as drawings, paintings, and other artwork of a jazz nature. Where else are you going to find an original stained glass portrait of Clifford Brown or Sun Ra?

 

            If you like to keep your jazz on the “real” side, EZ’s is about as proletarian and earthbound a venue as you’re liable to find. In the midst of a living historical legacy, the folks back in the shed are busily baking some home-cooked history of their own, cranking out sounds of surprise, community style.

 

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