Live indoor music is returning to Toronto and jazz musicians are thrilled

Jazz musicians are thrilled they can perform live indoors after almost a year of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Phase 3 of Ontario's COVID-19 reopening allows musicians to perform indoors, on patios

Allison Au, right, plays with Ernesto Cervini, left, and Dan Fortin on the patio at The Rex Hotel Jazz and Blues Bar on July 8, 2021. (Jazz in Toronto)

For the first time in almost a year, live music is returning to indoor venues as Ontario moves into Step 3 of its reopening plan. 

On Friday, the province relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, allowing venues to welcome people back for live music shows with a 50 per cent capacity limit. 

For jazz musicians like Toronto's Allison Au, the inability to play live during the pandemic proved particularly challenging. 

"The beauty of [jazz] music is really the spontaneity of it," Au said. "I think that's why the live music element is so crucial to this genre in particular."

Last week, Au performed two shows in front of a live audience on the patio at The Rex Hotel Jazz and Blues Bar. It was her first performance at a music venue since March 2020. 

Allison Au, a jazz saxophonist, composer, and arranger, played a gig at a venue last week for the first time since March 2020. She says the opportunity to connect with a live audience is 'very valuable.' (Agnes Wywrot)

She says after a year of posting videos to YouTube, participating in virtual workshops and playing livestream gigs, the opportunity to connect with a live audience was "very valuable." 

"Even if we were active online, it was still that silent audience," she said. "With a live audience, we feed off their energy and that was obviously missing the past year." 

'I hope people come out'

A live, responsive audience is only one of the critical pieces of jazz, Au says. Another is being able to share a stage with fellow musicians. 

"There are great things happening online, but you can't resonate the same kind of energy," said Donovan Locke, a jazz vocalist in Toronto. 

Locke, like Au, had not performed at a live venue since last spring. But he says when he played a show with his bandmates on the patio of Drom Taberna last week, it felt as though no time had passed. 

Locke believes the return of live shows will lead to a "resurgence" of jazz in the city. He thinks after so much time without access to live venues, people will have more appreciation for the music. 

"I hope people come out, and I hope they are generous, and I hope that venue owners will offer opportunities for people to come and play," Locke said.

"I think we're on the verge of something really exciting." 

'We need to have live music'

The Rex Hotel Jazz and Blues Bar is one of Toronto's most prominent jazz hubs and a venue that's offering live indoor performances this weekend. 

It was also one of the first venues to bring back patio performances.

"The first note of the first show, I was as emotional as anybody," said Tom Tytel, The Rex's music manager.

"It's wonderful having that back." 

The Rex Hotel Jazz and Blues Bar is one of the venues that will be opening this weekend for indoor performances at half capacity. Music manager Tom Tytel says the bar has undergone renovations and implemented safety infrastructure to guarantee musicians could return as soon as possible. (The Rex Hotel Jazz and Blues Bar)

Though Tytel was thrilled to have live music return to The Rex in any capacity, he says the outdoor setting wasn't ideal. Car horns, people shouting and loud traffic took away from the performances. 

"What I learned in the last year and a half is we don't want to have live music, we need to have live music, like air and water and other necessities of life," Tytel said.

"It's going to be proven in the first note; there's something about it that we need." 

Before the pandemic, The Rex was home to 19 live shows each week. The Rex took the lockdown period to renovate, relaunch and add infrastructure to guard against the spread of COVID-19. 

Au is looking forward to being on stage regularly, collaborating with her fellow musicians and developing as an artist.

"Knowing that there will be opportunities to play and share music, I think is really going to re-ignite people," Au said. 

"I think there's a really strong sense of optimism here."