Award-winning journalist, critic, producer,
author and educator Dennis Polkow is on the adjunct
humanities and philosophy faculty at Oakton Community College,
Des Plaines, IL and is also faculty advisor to The OCCurrence,
Oakton’s student newspaper. Polkow is also on the adjunct religious studies
faculty at Lewis University, Romeoville, IL, and is columnist for
City Talk and music critic for the arts journal Agrippina.
Born with perfect
pitch into a musical family with roots extending back to 17th
century German composer Heinrich Schütz, Polkow began his performing
career at age 14 touring as a rock and jazz keyboardist and by age
16, was concertizing as a classical organist and harpsichordist
and composing and arranging pop music for Lee Productions, Sound
Alike Music, and Columbia Records.
A graduate of
DePaul University in Chicago where he holds degrees in music theory,
composition, philosophy and religious studies, Polkow was on the
faculty of the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL for eight years,
where he created and maintained courses across four departments
– including inaugurating an off-campus philosophy and religious
studies program – and where he hosted a weekly interview arts program
on WDCB radio called “Meet the Musicmakers.”
ongoing research into historical Jesus methodology is routinely
used by scholars of various faiths and began with a dissertation
on the subject under John Dominic Crossan, the only graduate thesis
agreed to be directed by the groundbreaking multi-disciplinary scholar
and best-selling author during his quarter-century at DePaul. Years
before the creation of the controversial “Jesus Seminar,” Polkow
was popularizing historical Jesus research in a non-sensational
yet accessible manner across a variety of media.
conventional were Polkow’s studies with Catholic biblical scholars
Bruce Vawter, John L. McKenzie and John J. Collins and his work
in the field of adult religious education where Polkow devised a
system and style developed with Reformation historian William A.
Scott and elaborated upon by educational psychologist Hans A. Scheiser
which has been used by churches and clergy training programs across
Polkow came into journalism through the unconventional route of having
been asked by one of his students in a Gnosticism seminar to help
create The Chicago Musicale, an experimental music
and arts publication. After winning an EDPRESS Award for the “Best
Interview of 1985” with conductor Erich Leinsdorf, Polkow became
a freelance feature writer and music critic for The
Chicago Sun-Times, later switching to the Chicago Tribune, where he helped launch and develop the “ArtsWatch”
review section when it was the color back page of Section One, and
where he regularly wrote for “Friday,” “Sunday Arts,” “Tempo,” as
well as for TribNews, the paper’s in-house employee
Polkow’s stint as music critic of the Chicago Reader included controversial book-length “think piece” articles
and reviews, including a massive cover story interview with the
illusive conductor Sir Georg Solti called “Solti Speaks” which remains
the most requested back issue of that publication.
Other Chicago area publications he has written for regularly include New City, Chicago Jazz Weekly, Inside
Chicago and Encore.
Among the national publications Polkow has written for include Keyboard, Clavier, Rolling Stone,
Musician, Billboard, Down Beat, Jazziz, Tower Records' Pulse! Ladies Home Journal, National Catholic Reporter, The Christian Century, The Fourth ‘R’, Religion-Online,
Stagebill, Ring Magazine, Flute Talk,
Early Music America, American Airlines Magazine, Musical America and Astronomy.
Invited by former Beatle Paul McCartney to cover the preparations for
the world premiere of his Liverpool
Oratorio in his hometown of Liverpool, England, the fruit of
that exclusive two-week access became “The McCartney Nobody Knows”
two-part cover story in Musician Magazine which has been translated
into a dozen languages.
In 1992, Polkow co-created – and would later edit – Spotlight, the nationally award-winning
tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications
newspaper chain that became a prototype for similar publications
across the country, including the Daily Herald’s Time
Out! and The
Reader’s Guide to Arts & Entertainment.
Polkow’s syndicated “Face the Music” column pioneered the notion of a
single columnist covering all forms of music – rock, jazz, pop,
folk, rap, hip-hop, world music, early music, classical, opera,
musical theatre and new music – all in a single venue with a single
As record producer, music video producer, keyboardist, composer, arranger
and artist consultant, Polkow has
worked with such diverse artists as the Ides of March, Madura,
Chicago, Peter Cetera, R.E.O. Speedwagon, Dennis DeYoung (of Styx),
Brian Eno, Keith Emerson, Anthony Newman, Hermann Prey, Christopher
Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, Pierre Boulez and L’Ensemble
InterContemporain, Ike Cole (Nat’s brother), Dizzy Gillespie, Tony
Williams, Chick Corea and Origin, and the Grammy Award-winning Chicago
Pro Musica, with whom Polkow produced an album of new music by area
composers called The Clarinet
In My Mind, recently re-released on Sony Classical.
An active voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts &
Sciences, Polkow has been a regular contributor to Grammy Magazine, has written program notes for Grammy Award presentations,
“NARAS in the Classroom” music education materials and “Lifetime
Achievement Award” and “Grammy Legend” biographies as well as album
liner notes for artists of all genres.
As an educator, Polkow admits to being a bit of a ham who enjoys “performing”
both for and with students, as well as incorporating humor, select
irreverence and today’s headlines into the course material. He prefers
the informal, flexible and energized environment of the community
college to the often more formalized, static and impersonal world
of the university and enjoys the opportunity to share his enthusiasm
for his subject matter, which he always hopes will have a contagious
effect on students. As the recipient of the countless benefits of
interaction with the magnificently diverse student body at Oakton,
Polkow admits that “teaching” is a peculiar paradox for him, as
more often than not, he learns more from his students than he could
possibly share with them.
Philosophically, Polkow calls himself an existentialist in the Martin
Heidegger tradition (rather than the nausea tradition of Jean Paul
Sartre which inverted Heidegger) in that he sees existence as the
window through which all of us look out at the world around us.
Polkow studied with Heidegger protégé Bernard J. Boelen, the only
philosopher Polkow has come across to devise a philosophy based
in awe and wonder.
In teaching ethics, Polkow not only draws upon conventional thinkers
such as Plato, Aristotle and Kant, but also makes a point of including
the challenge to morality made by Nietzsche as well as the work
of Max Scheler, the only major 20th century thinker to
have devised a complete system of ethics. Polkow was a student of
Manfred S. Frings, editor of the fifteen-volume German collected
edition of Scheler’s works (Gesammelte Werke) and translator of Scheler’s major work on ethics
In teaching world religions and non-western thought, Polkow draws upon
his extensive travels to the Middle East and Far East and makes
use of his studies with Hindu scholar Vasudha Narayanan – the first
non-Jewish/non-Christian president of the American Academy of Religion
in that organization’s near century of existence – and Jodo shinshu
priest and Zen master Gyomay Kubose as well as interviews he has
conducted with religious historians such as Huston Smith, Mircea
Eliade, Jacob Neusner, Martin E. Marty and Wilfred Cantwell Smith
along with a particularly moving series of interviews conducted
with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet during the
Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Among his hobbies,
Polkow enjoys chasing total eclipses of the Sun and other celestial
wonders to the far corners of the globe, and he’s doing his best
to raise a pair of abandoned white cats, Bonnie and Clyde, the inspiration
for the syndicated cartoon strip of the same name.