Alex Gabriel McKanze is not your typical tour guide. Born and raised in the Paris suburbs, he identifies himself as Italian American with French culture (the American side, since it does really exist, is German, British and Cherokee). He speaks five languages fluently, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, as well as a little Portuguese and Latin.
As a freelance tour guide for Great New York Tours, he’s a walking encyclopedia. Even with a hangover, he can tell you that Henry Hudson discovered the Hudson River in 1609 (adding snidely, “Because the Native Americans obviously never saw it before”).
A 22-year-old with great ambition, McKanze speaks of his love for the “rhythm” of the city. To him, New York is work work work, and he loves it. He doesn’t know where his music will take him, but he is more than okay with that. He just wants to play.
I love it [Jazz]. It’s always new and it’s endless combination. And it’s also because you catch a moment that’s unique. Every time it’s different. I do not play the same song twice.
You can read the Q&A here or on Bedford & Bowery (This French-Born NYC Tour Guide Will Serenade You With Gypsy Jazz Tonight)
Why did you come to New York?
The challenge! Cuz it’s a big city and I love big cities. It’s very international… And it fascinates me about the rhythm, especially the rhythm. It never sleeps, it is always moving. I like it. Productivity… I like that in my music. I don’t like it when it’s easy.
Was it always your intention to come to New York?
I was interested but I was never sure because I never visited before until I was 16. I visited for two weeks and I thought, “Yeah, I’ll try it. I’ll try it, why not.”
What was it like in the beginning?
Originally I was in New Jersey, in Morristown, for three months. It wasn’t very good but I had a foot to New York. They gave us a lot of work, very little shelter and barely any food. It was 30 horses, 20 kids. Trust me, you want to take care of the horses, not the kids. It was a lot of learning because it was the first time I went to live on my own and it wasn’t something easy. Cuz I was 18 and I thought, “Oh yeah, easy, I’ll get a job with the languages and pay the rent and I’ll be happy. But no.”
Did you manage to leave?
I went from the stables in New Jersey to Crown Heights doing jobs like waitering, which wasn’t sufficient. Then I started the next year as a travel agent for a company called Volatour, from whom I got a lot of connections. Then the following year I got my tour guide license and started to work freelance. Last year I moved from Crown Heights to Bushwick.
Do you like being a tour guide?
Being a tour guy in the tourism industry is the best position you can get in terms of comfort. Not income but comfort. You get good pay and you get plenty of time. I really saw this as a job and not a career because several times they told me I can upgrade, I can be manager this or supervisor that, and every time I declined. I feel, as long as I am in my twenties, I don’t see why I need to get serious with a job that I don’t really want.
Well, you’re only 22. And what is it that you want?
Make music. See, now I work, I have free time to make my music. Then I work, if I make money, I make music, I make more money, then I have more time to make music. You see, it’s a circle going up.
What type of music do you like?
The music that I like is anything from jazz to techno, from rap to opera, and anything in between. So any type of good music. But the one I really like to play, to be honest, is really jazz. Because jazz you use scales that are much more difficult to play with, and I like the challenge. And the best thing is improvisation. You see, I love to improvise because you can do more stuff.
When did you learn to play guitar?
I picked it up when I was 16, but I was learning some chords like “Smoke on the Water,” easy stupid stuff. Then I picked it up again when I was 18, when I came here. Because I didn’t have any friends, so guitar in a sort of metaphorical way became my friend. I play every day, at least an hour or two.
Where do you see your music taking you?
There’s no limits. The world is not enough.
Listen to his music https://soundcloud.com/