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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.


  • Colonel

    Hmmm. I agree that jazz musicians don’t need a posh backdrop for their performances. And obviously that seems to work at the jazz clubs around town (and keeps local musicians working).
    But what about bigger national and international acts? Seems to me we need at least one with either the deep pockets or the paying clientele that can entice acts like Ray Brown to make their way up here. That’s what I used to appreciate about Top of the Senator.

    • Dave

      Exactly. It’s not about what colour the table cloths are or how good the duck is at $25. It’s about providing a club setting that can get the kind of acts that are too big for the Rex. We haven’t had that kind of club since the Bistro closed, and the kind of talent we’ve been getting since reflects that.

  • Chadwick

    The very fact they named this place “jazz bistro” says it all. It’s corny, lame, and not authentic. I will never go there.

    • dsmithhfx

      There are plenty of good reasons to never go there enumerated in the review ^^^. Yours is simply ridiculous.

    • Brian

      10000% agree
      This “fabricated” jazz — trying to make it lush and ‘cool’ is anything but what real jazz is.. If they want to get a vibe going, they need to have all night jam sessions like most of the authentic clubs use to have and most still offer in New your.. more importantly.. The programming is the same “usual suspects” who in some ways may be responsible for killing the jazz scene in toronto by playing the same ‘floaty’, non-swinging rubbish..

      This club will last 2-3 years more only because the owner is rich and is oblivious…. A true joke , trying to manufacture a jazz environment ……
      pure nonsense…

  • Kate Roberts

    Reservoir Lounge, Gate 403, The Local, Grossman’s Tavern, N’awlin’s, Allez Cats, Dominion – all great jazz (and blues, and rock and everything else) holes – I frequent them often and they’re the best places to see Toronto Talent (old and new).

    As for larger venues (to attract larger international talent), I’ve heard Kroener hall is great, and there’s of course Roy Thompson hall and Massey hall – you’ll have to give up the martini, but that’s the price of a good concert.

  • andrewsmyk

    More interested that Phish will be playing on July 9th!

  • dsmithhfx

    The Pilot brings in some great jazz acts every Saturday afternoon (and possibly other times as well, though they canceled the Sunday show last year). Seating is very limited and unless you’re a Pilot barfly (“regular”, as they like to be called) with a reserved table, you’ll likely find yourself sitting cheek-by-jowl with one of the musicians.

  • kat

    “Would you really want to pay a cover charge to listen to a suburban real estate agent talk about his latest conquest?”

    Hey, I know him.

  • lightsweetcrude

    Koerner Hall has taken the spot of the “upscale jazz club” – it’s that simple. Jazz Bistro will be another option, but Koerner Hall is taking the gigs that would have gone to places like The Bermuda Onion, Montreal Bistro, etc etc for several nights.

  • Cpt_Sunshine

    I think this article completely misses the point. This is not about class or “upscale” vs “hole in the wall”. When the Top o’ the Senator and the Montreal Bistro closed what Toronto lost were the only two venues that offered residencies.

    If you go back in the history of Jazz you’ll see that clubs featured the same bands night after night for sometimes an entire month. Most of the seminal albums in Jazz history were recorded after such residencies. There is nothing in Jazz like watching a band that has been playing the same charts night after night. The comfort with the charts allows for real innovation in improvisation. Currently there are only a handful of clubs in the world that still provide this function, most notably the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note in New York which offer week long residencies. There are a few clubs in London, Los Angles and a few other cities that do the same thing.

    Currently, there are many good jazz clubs in Toronto (many listed by other commenters), but none offer residencies. The Rex will sometimes book back-to-back shows for out of town acts, the Reservoir Lounge has the same acts week after week. That’s about it. If you look a the Jazz Bistro’s schedule they are booking acts for 3 consecutive nights. It’s not a week, but its a start. I don’t care what colour the table clothes are or how expensive a Martini is. Booking acts for long stays is as legit as a Jazz club can get (that and the quality of their jam sessions).

    I hope the Jazz Bistro is successful. I hope more clubs in Toronto give local talent the opportunity to develop the art of improvisation over the course of many nights. It’s what we need to be a real world class Jazz city.

    • Brian

      i respect your view but disagree.
      I think what we need is a club that is minimalist in aesthetics that focuses on letting musicians interact in the jam session, or more importantly, the “cutting sessions” .. this in turn would add more excitement to this downhill spiral of mainstream lollypop Jazz in TO….

  • Treptower

    In Canada, Montreal is the only city that has a Jazz scene. Upstairs, House of Jazz, l’Astral are intimate venues that are dedicated to jazz, don’t cost an arm and a leg and where the music is more important than how much the furnishings cost. A venue like Jazz Bistro is a place where d-bags go to pretend they have sophisticated musical taste and brag about how much they spent.

    • Brian

      yup ….Agreed
      And it won’t last,.. they are trying to recreate what can not be recreated ..
      Zero substance …Programming cabaret singers, now comediennes ….
      Reminds me of the programming at those Dinner theaters

  • hjr2

    Jazz ain’t pretty. Just because it was co-opted by a bunch of white guys who relegated it to polite settings and business suits doesn’t mean it was meant to be played for those types. I like my jazz filthy, drunk and drug riddled. The business suit types pretending they get it, that want to spend extra to filter out the scum can have their “bistros”. I want to hear players rip my face off and smoke a joint with them in the parking lot and have them explain half whole diminished uses over altered dominants while drinking pitchers of cheap, shitty beer.
    Go to a museum if you want class. I want some fucking music.

    • Brian

      NAiled it !!