ARTS AND CULTURE
Where to Catch Live Blues and Jazz in Toronto
Hogtown's place isn't as lofty as that of Chicago or New York (or even Montreal) when it comes to blues and jazz history – but here in the present, you're spoiled for choice
Toronto was an important stop on the 20th century jazz circuit, and while storied old venues like the Colonial Tavern and George’s Spaghetti House may have disappeared, a few hardy survivors remain – and have been joined by newer spots. Today, aficionados of blues and jazz have nearly a dozen shows to choose from any day of the week. Whether doing the town with a significant other or craving a matinee, Toronto has something for casual fans and purists alike. Here are the best spots to enjoy some swing, bop and blues:
Poetry Jazz Cafe
It’s only right Kensington Market, Toronto’s bohemian mecca, would boast a venue dedicated to poets, writers and jazz musicians. With a number of Miles Davis pictures adorning its walls and a minty house signature cocktail dubbed “bitches brew” after Davis’s album of the same name, Poetry practically doubles as a shrine to the great trumpeter. New York had Minton’s and The 3 Deuces during the golden years of jazz/bebop, and Poetry has positioned itself as their modern-day equivalent by providing young musicians a stage to earn their chops and work out the kinks in their sounds in an environment that cosily evokes the 1960s.
224 Augusta Ave., 416-599-5299
One of Toronto’s few go-to blues haunts, with a properly dingy exterior for atmosphere, Grossman’s has more than 70 years of service on Spadina Avenue (directly next to Kensington). The loveable dive is one of the last remnants of a bygone, grittier Toronto. It opened its doors in 1943, before the surrounding area became the city’s foremost Chinatown. While the program predominantly features blues acts, Grossman’s does make room for jazz and roots, and best of all, they’re cover charge refuseniks, so it’s always free to duck your head in and see what’s on. If you play or sing, check the schedule for open mic nights.
379 Spadina Ave., 416-977-7000
Courtesy Eric Fefferman/Grossman's Tavern
The Silver Dollar Room
Like Grossman’s Tavern (located a hop, skip and a jump away), The Silver Dollar Room is one of few relics of a pre-Chinatown Spadina Avenue. Founded in 1958 as a lounge for the adjacent Hotel Waverly, both properties were recently declared heritage sites by city officials, and the Silver Dollar’s big circular sign is a neighbourhood landmark. While jazz and blues still drive the musty-yet-endearing Silver Dollar, the venue has diversified its bills over the years, hosting punk, acid rock bands and a bevy of genre-bending acts. There are no cover charges here, either.
486 Spadina Ave., 416-975-0909
The Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Bar
The Rex’s casual atmosphere, central location (near Queen and University, across the street from Osgoode subway station) and nearly two dozen weekly shows make this an easy choice for connoisseurs of jazz. You won’t find any snazzily dressed patrons or elaborate cocktail programs at this downtown bar, which opened in the 1950s and has made jazz a specialty since the ’80s. Matinees begin at noon on Saturdays and Sundays, and certain Mondays feature ensembles from local schools (University of Toronto and Humber College). There’s also a small number of spartan hotel rooms upstairs, but The Rex puts music first. Everything after is mere detail.
194 Queen St. W., 416-598-2475
With its low ceiling, exposed brick and dim lighting, the Reservoir Lounge is a clean and classy rendition of a quintessential jazz bar. While it’s more of a date-night destination than a jazzophile’s haunt like, say, The Rex, the lounge makes for a great night out, featuring a rotating cast of local swing and R&B acts. It’s also located steps from the Financial District, for anyone who has a jazz-loving business contact to entertain. Besuited patrons tend not to stick around, mind you: Once you’ve taken your first sip and the bill’s first act hits the tiny stage (around 10 p.m. nightly) the dressier portion of the clientele tends to file out into the night.
52 Wellington St. E., 416-955-0887
Tucked away in the west end’s Roncesvalles Village – a typically quaint and laid-back Toronto neighbourhood – Gate 403 puts on two shows a night, featuring a near-equal mix of jazz and blues acts. Performers take the stage smack dab in the middle of the unpretentious space, so patrons can see and listen uninhibited no matter where they sit in the long, narrow bar. An added treat: A mirror is placed on a wall overlooking the piano keys for a bird’s eye view of players’ hands getting busy.
403 Roncesvalles Ave., 416-588-2930
Richard Carson opened Hugh’s Room in 2001, fulfilling a longtime dream of he and his late brother’s, whose name the bar bears. In keeping with the Carson brothers’ dream, the club mostly features folk acts, but still peppers its calendar with jazz and blues. Despite its 200-seat capacity, Hugh’s dim lighting and old-timey red tablecloth clad tables help create a cosy viewing and listening experience. It’s located within easy walking distance of Gate 403, at the north end of Roncesvalles Village and near Dundas West subway station.
2261 Dundas St. W., 416-531-6604