The revamped club hopes to put the swing back in a city starved for jazz options
Tim Fraser for National Post
When Toronto’s Top o’ the Senator closed in 2005, its owner, Bobby Sniderman, lamented to the Post, “For the people that really love jazz, the market is dwindling.” The Savoy, which moved into the Senator’s downtown space, occasionally booked jazz but closed a year later, and soon after, the nearby Montreal Bistro shut down after 25 years. It seemed prospective owners of Toronto jazz clubs should proceed with caution — if at all.
But Colin Hunter, owner of Sunwing Airlines and Sunwing Vacations, and a part-time crooner whose album Come Fly with Me pictures him singing on an airplane’s wing, would disagree. In his new club, Jazz Bistro, the word “Jazz” is lit up like a large beacon above the stage. Hunter has revamped the Senator’s old building with intent, taking out part of the floor of the old club (which was confined to the second storey) to create a balcony peering down to the ground floor; there, a seven-foot, six-figure signature Steinway piano in black and electric red presides.
“It’s a fun thing, but I hope it can be profitable,” he says, just before charming a crowd at a travel event with — what else — Fly Me to the Moon. Booker Sibyl Walker sees an untapped market: “I have people say to me all the time, ‘I’m not sure what jazz is; I don’t know anything about it, but I really like it.’ ” Walker worked at the Senator from its inception in 1990 and built its reputation for both supporting local acts and bringing in international stars. Diana Krall played there (“She said, ‘Maybe I’ll just come back and play a couple nights,’ ” says Walker. “She can go right ahead!”), as did the likes of Shirley Horn and Amy Winehouse.
We don’t have a world-class jazz club, and it’s a bit embarrassing.
But not everybody loved the club — Hunter visited only once (“I wasn’t impressed”), and Juno-winning singer Molly Johnson recalls, “The sightlines were awful, and it was super-expensive because it wasn’t big enough.” And yet, Johnson traces some of her best musical memories to playing there, due to staff’s commitment and the clientele’s devotion. Now, she says, the Bistro can fill a void: “We really, really need a spot — we don’t have a world-class jazz club, and it’s a bit embarrassing.”
Jazz Bistro is built with the stage as a centrepiece, not stuck in a corner. Where zealously enforced quiet policies such as the Senator’s might turn away more casual fans, the Bistro offers out-of-the-way areas in which chatting isn’t a mortal sin — and TV screens show the stage. Where the Senator’s definition of “jazz” was certainly mainstream, Walker plans to open the Bistro up on different nights to Afro-Cuban music, blues and cabaret singers. And where the word “jazz” may have developed a negative connotation in the food realm — one local chef turned down a chance at the job because of the venue’s name — chef Matt Cowan says he’s addressing “the preconceived notion that music venues have crap food” with his upscale bistro fare.
Recognizing that it’s not a cheap club, Walker plans a discount policy for students, whose budding fandom is essential to the club’s, and the music’s, survival. She’s already booked 10 album launches by local musicians, and the Canadian dollar’s health will help her bring up musicians from the jazz Mecca, New York; one such was saxist and flautist Lew Tabackin, who played to a rapt crowd on the venue’s soft-launch opening weekend. Word of the club, it seems, has already spread internationally: from the stage, Tabackin saluted Walker and proclaimed, “This will go down in Toronto history.”
Jazz Bistro, at 251 Victoria Street, opens officially to the public Thursday, with a performance by Joe Sealy. For more information, see jazzbistro.ca. Molly Johnson plays at the club June 21-22.