by carl wilson

Toronto Unsyncopated

Branford Marsalis plays Top o' the Senator last year. Photo by Bill King.

In today's Globe and Mail, I offer an obituary for the city's former leading jazz club, Top o' the Senator, and a survey of what's next for jazz venues in the city. I often criticized the Senator for its conservatism, but it was a terrific listening room - and you will not believe the bizarre Vegas-revue kind of plans the new owners have for music there in the fall. There's other good news for Toronto jazz, though - details in the piece. [... Read it here. ...]

Out of syncopation

Top o' the Senator, that finely chilled jazz joint, is gone. The venue replacing it, writes CARL WILSON, has a very different set list in mind

The Globe & Mail
Toronto Section
Saturday, July 16, 2005

Since 1990, Top o' the Senator has been the impeccably dry martini of Toronto entertainment, a place where the finest jazz musicians would take up residency for a week at a time, and waiters would mete out a discreet shushing if you chattered too loud during a set.

Now it's gone, joining the Bermuda Onion, the Colonial, George's Spaghetti House and other ghosts of Toronto jazz past, and leaving the city's jazz aficionados to wonder where the future lies. The walk-up at 253 Victoria St., tucked behind the Pantages Theatre, closed July 4 to the sound of Sheila Jordan singing, "For all we know/ we may never meet again."

"The Senator was unique in that it opened as a dedicated music room," says guitarist Michael Occhipinti, who played there with his progressive big band NOJO. "Most clubs are just bars that at some point decided to have music."

Business had been shaky for five years. The low Canadian dollar put big-name American acts out of reach, neighbouring theatres weren't thriving, SARS cast its shadow and the whole Yonge-Dundas area was going through upheaval.

So, late last year, owner Bob Sniderman sold the club and the main-floor Torch Bistro to an investor group headed by sommelier Michael Sullivan. They're now renovating, to "open up" the room. When it reappears this fall as the Savoy, jazz will be a small part of its repertoire.

Mr. Sullivan wants the club to get younger, more accessible and eclectic to reflect Toronto. But his approach is surprising. While he initially spoke vaguely of world music, rhythm and blues, even a burlesque show, now the plan is for the Savoy to present musical revues of its own creation -- "with a theatrical element" -- from Thursday to Saturday. Each show will highlight a genre, such as funk or classic rock, and run weekly for as long as two months.

The events will be supervised by Craig Martin, the producer of Classic Albums Live, a series of renditions of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley records. Regular concerts, including jazz, are confined mainly to Sundays.

The scheme seems as fiscally dodgy as jazz was, Mr. Sullivan admits. "But we suspect it will work." He'll find out, starting Sept. 23.

In theory, jazz in Toronto should be thriving. It has music students coming through Humber College, York and U of T, a strong summer festival season and the rare resource of a 24-hour jazz FM radio station. Mr. Occhipinti says the situation compares decently with American cities of similar size.

Yet the only remaining club on the Senator model is the Montreal Bistro on Sherbourne Street, which has hosted the likes of Oliver Jones and Diana Krall since 1983. Rumours have swept through town that the Bistro too would close next year, but owner Lothar Lang assures he's simply renegotiating his lease. He has had a difficult couple of years, but he's not giving up.

Jazz everywhere is at an awkward stage. Pop-crossover singers such as Ms. Krall dominate over more boundary-pushing instrumentalists, and hip-hop and electronic music often seem more vibrant to young explorers. "I'm catering to grandparents now," Mr. Lang says.

But the scene is different at the Rex Hotel on Queen Street West, where passing foot traffic and a casual atmosphere supply musicians with full houses of bar-hoppers. If the Senator was a martini, the Rex is a keg.

"It's not a place to play ballads. But it is a fun place to get kind of raucous," Mr. Occhipinti says. "At the Bistro and the Senator, you would lose a little of that energy."

There are other optimistic notes. Last fall, 22-year-old entrepreneur Mark Finkelstein saw a gap in the school-year jazz market and put on the Toronto Progressive Jazz series, which brought heavy hitters Branford Marsalis and Dave Holland as well as the funkier Medeski Martin and Wood to venues in town.

This winter saw the formation of the Association of Improvising Musicians of Toronto, a collective of experimental young players who can be found most nights playing inventive sets at the Tranzac on Brunswick Avenue. And this week an intimate new club opened in a warm old Edwardian on Markham Street in Mirvish Village.

The Red Guitar Art Café is a labour of love for jazz singer Corry Sobol. With 43 seats, it's only a third the capacity of the Senator. Here, Ms. Sobol hopes "to represent the entire jazz tradition, from early jazz to the most avant-garde contemporary music," with a "non-elitist, friendly space that encourages people to stretch out a little."

Her emphasis is on local musicians, which seems to be the trend. It's cheaper and, where 20 years ago Torontonians disdained Canadian players, now they draw reasonable crowds. Still, a shortage of foreign visitors deprives listeners and musicians of a valuable source of stimulation.

And the passing of the Senator hasn't altered the basically homeless status of progressive contemporary jazz, in a city where 1950s and 1960s-style bebop and post-bop remain the default.

"When someone like John Scofield or Bill Frisell comes to town," Mr. Occhipinti says, "I look at the audience and wonder, 'Who are these people? I don't see them in the clubs.' But those players get crowds out, and they also win critics' polls. That's something still untapped. If I had money to burn, I'd be opening it myself."

* * *

ZOILUS NOTES: Inevitably, dealing with a subject this broad, you can't include everything, and in this piece the editors cut my mention of smaller but satisfying clubs such as the Trane on Bathurst and Mezzetta on St. Clair, as well as the fact that the Music Gallery - although currently in a dire deficit position and not even presenting much improv and jazz of any kind due to funding problems - has grand ambitions of eventually relocating from its current shared space in a downtown church to be the leading force behind a big new cultural centre, which would not only accommodate their new-music agenda, the fresh avant-pop series, and possibly the Wavelength series too, but also creative jazz and improv. And finally I should add that former Music Gallery jazz programmer Ron Gaskin's unit Rough Idea is still bringing European and American improvisors to Toronto semi-regularly, often at the New Works Studio walk-up on Spadina.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 16 at 2:33 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)



In thinking more about this discussion I can see that the phrase "artistic pretensions" might set off some alarm bells, Tim. Part of the problem is the fact that Canada is still a cultural backwater in terms of jazz and progressive music in general compared to a place like Stockholm. Europeans seem to have a better understanding and appreciation of music beyond pop - when I was in Caen, France, earlier this year, I saw a big ad for a concert of Anton Webern's music on a bus shelter.
The idea of jazz as 'art' is historically grounded. It was not always this way. When the beboppers claimed artistic value for their music and upped the complexity, a lot was gained but much was lost as well. Parker, Gillespie et al had the bad timing to raise the aesthetic and intellectual demands on their audience at the precise moment that American/Canadian popular culture was poised to dumb down through television and rock and roll. Both of which I love, by the way, but they are, admit it, largely dumb.

Posted by Mike Daley on July 20, 2005 6:03 AM



Hi Mike and Zoilusites,

I am in Stockholm Sweden (I really only mention that to try and compete with all the exciting "musical jet-setting I read about on your blog mike! haha) trying to figure out what day it is, what time it is and whether I am at the beginning, middle or end of my nights sleep...I digress already.

I feel fortunate to be in a situation occasionally (like this week) to play jazz in concert settings where the audience is all listening yet the classy atmosphere you mention is often still present.

I guess my only point is that I like jazz to be listened to as art. I am reading Leroi Jones' Blues People and he seems to lament that development. Of course he does go on to explain why based on the terrible situation that African Americans were going through at the same time peoples consumption of blues and early jazz was changing.

Almost a whole century later, I think I like where the music lives. It is a flexible music that can be whistled while one irons his clothes, enjoyed in concert halls as high art or consumed as entertainment by artists that are popular enough to sell cars and watches on television. We get to choose where we want to do our listening.

I am almost sure I still need a few more winks of sleep.

p.s. Phil, I have played at Hermans in Victoria a couple times. Lots of good memories and I look forward to coming back to Victoria.

Posted by tim posgate on July 20, 2005 12:01 AM



Hey Tim, Mike et al.

I too have fond memories of the Top O...Randy Weston with Dewey Redman(?) from the back of the room when smoking was still allowed. It reminded me of the Village Vanguard without the sight lines.

Victoria has Herman's. Come on out Tim, I'm sure they'd love to have you. If not, let me know, I'll ply some muscle. Talk about conservative...yikes.

Posted by Phil on July 19, 2005 12:05 PM



Hi Tim. What I mean is that when I was in college, jazz was held up as the only vital art music around. We studied it with a great attention to detail, and I naively looked forward to sharing this music with an audience. When I started to get out and play gigs, I found that in large part the people who came to jazz venues consumed jazz as part of a vaguely "classy" atmosphere and did not seem to be interested in or able to engage the music directly or with any degree of attention. Mind you, I was not playing the Senator or the Rex. I was playing shitty little bars around Hamilton. The only people who seemed to listen were other jazz musicians. The whole thing just seemed dumbed down and insulting to me. I got really disillusioned and stopped playing jazz in public for quite a few years. It's only in the last little while that I've been able to do it again, and only because it's 20s-30s jazz, which has a great deal more popular appeal. Tim, I hope that makes my statement more clear.


Posted by Mike Daley on July 19, 2005 6:28 AM



as much as I often enjoy reading your blog ( I am really confused by this comment you made:

"It has taken me years to start to get over the dissonance between the art pretensions of jazz as I learned them in college and the realities of the live jazz audience."

please explain if you have a minute.

Posted by tim posgate on July 17, 2005 10:54 PM



As a musician who plays jazz (with the local traditional jazz outfit the Hogtown Syncopators) and rock (I will be playing at the Savoy on Thursday nights come September) I have to admit that I feel ambivalent about the regime change at the Senator space. Jazz venues do seem to be cursed around here, as the types of audiences that want to hear the type of jazz that most musicians WANT to play are small and transitory. The perception that jazz venues seem to be scarce is just that, a perception among musicians because of the wacked-out supply and demand balance between listeners and musicians.
It has taken me years to start to get over the dissonance between the art pretensions of jazz as I learned them in college and the realities of the live jazz audience.


Posted by Mike Daley on July 17, 2005 2:36 PM



Ah, that's really too bad that New Works is closing. Many many thanks for keeping it open all this time Mike & letting people use it as a performance space. I've seen a lot of good music there, & the poetry gigs I put on there were lots of fun.

Posted by nate d on July 17, 2005 12:15 AM



I feel very fortunate to have performed at the Senator and the New Works Studio. I will miss them both. I am very excited about the Red Guitar Arthouse Cafe (603 Markham St.) as there will be music similar to that which may have found homes in both these places. (see Carl's article and photo in todays globe, toronto section)

But, playing a whole week at the Senator as I did a number of times was something special that I may never get to do again...great memories.

tim posgate

Posted by tim posgate on July 16, 2005 9:51 PM



I'm sorry to say the New Works Studio will also be closing it's doors. August is the last month of New Works. It's been fun, but the building was to expensive to maintain.

Mike Hansen

Posted by Mike Hansen on July 16, 2005 9:34 PM



Montreal is a jazz town for 10 days a year. Something will follow the Senator, just like the Senator came along near the end of the Onion stand, etc...Some fool will be convinced s/he can make money from jazz, try for 8 years, lose the shirt until the next one comes along, and on and on...

Posted by originalspin on July 16, 2005 7:49 PM



Too bad about The Senator. It was the one place that kept my parents' dwindling nightlife cred alive. One of their favorite nights there was seeing the late Dorothy Donegan, the obscenely old jazz pianist who could still play (well, almost) as quickly as Monk in his prime.

Posted by Steve Birek on July 16, 2005 6:15 PM



Read a bit, to "revue" and "theatrical element," and thought I was reading about a potential "Spring Thaw." I'd sacrifice a few meals and even fly Air Chaos for one of those--but nay, not--too bad.

I remember some fine music at the Senator, up those old, narrow stairs, and yet farther up with the Metro Jazz Society when it hung out on the top floor.

It's a little better in Vancouver than your piece implies, a few clubs still standing, just that all the incredible talent that was born here seems to be elsewhere. And it's just not a jazztown like TO used to be, and Mtl and Seattle still are.

Jazz is still very fragile.

Janet Hudgins

Posted by Janet Hudgins on July 16, 2005 5:32 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson