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culture

Is the Age of the Jazz Club Over in Toronto?

With so many other options available, Toronto jazz fans may no longer need upscale venues.

Jazz Bistro was filled to the rafters on its first two weekends, in early April. So why are we left wondering if the age of the upscale jazz club is over in Toronto?

For the last decade, the Toronto jazzerati have been lamenting the death of one upscale club after another. The glory days of the Montreal Bistro and Top o’ the Senator have been left behind in the dust of condominiums and a changing tourism landscape. There have been valiant attempts at reviving the scene over the years. Remember Opal, The Red Violin, and Live at the Courthouse? No one can blame you if you don’t. Each one failed more spectacularly than the last. While there are many possible reasons for those failures, you have to wonder if the one common denominator is simply that Toronto no longer has an appetite for jazz in a “white tablecloth and martini” kind of setting.

Colin Hunter would hope that’s not the case. He’s the CEO of Sunwing Vacations, a leisure tour company, and he’s also the guy who spent a lot of money transforming the old Top o’ the Senator, on Victoria Street, into Jazz Bistro. The entire space has been re-imagined, with a small stage on the main floor and a balcony looking down on it from the second floor. There are several monitors to accommodate those with obstructed views. On the surface, it would seem as though some really wonderful things are about to happen at the venue. Hunter was even smart enough to hire the old manager of Top o’ the Senator, Sybil Walker, to book the talent.

So what went wrong?

On the club’s second weekend, the sound was abysmal. You could barely hear charming vocalist George Evans and his trio over the audience. Would you really want to pay a cover charge to listen to a suburban real estate agent talk about his latest conquest?

The small stage on the main floor is difficult to see from many corners of the club. At Top o’ the Senator, the stage was front and centre. Here, it feels as though it could be removed and replaced with a couple of four tops, where customers could loudly order more wine. Putting a custom red Steinway piano in your club is great, but if the audience can’t see it, what’s the point?

Something about an evening at Jazz Bistro felt like dinner with an ex, where even though you aren’t a couple anymore, you hope that whatever it was that brought you together in the first place is still there. And you know, at Jazz Bistro, it just wasn’t. You can look rationally at the renovation of the space and know that it was necessary, but it just felt so hollow. The Top o’ the Senator felt upscale, but it also felt authentic. Jazz Bistro, with its plethora of chandeliers, Louboutin red-and-black colour palette, and chatty clientele, feels like a Bougie Botox Queen who has nothing to offer the conversation.

Hopefully, Sybil Walker can work her magic. Hopefully, great music from local talent and international jazz stars will make Jazz Bistro a venue worth supporting.

That said, even if Jazz Bistro fails, don’t ring the death knell for jazz in this city just yet. The Rex Hotel has been presenting 19 shows a week for years and has slowly evolved from a no-menu, potato-chips-behind-the-bar kind of joint into a still-casual but “grown-up” venue. It has a great menu and a full bar and a staff that doesn’t sneer at you. There’s no “quiet policy,” but if the musicians are holding the crowd’s attention, you can hear a pin drop. Great jazz is also happening at unlikely venues all over Toronto. Art galleries and brunch spots that book amazing local talent are omnipresent. International talent can be seen at all kinds of venues during the Jazz Festival and year-round at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s beautiful Koerner Hall.

Toronto is still a great jazz city, but those of us who care about that need to consider whether an upscale backdrop matters as much as we think it does.

Photo by Tracey Nolan.

CORRECTION: May 7, 10:30AM The credit for the above photo was previously given to Jazz Bistro, when, in fact, the photo was provided by the author. The correction has been made above.

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