Toronto's long lost jazz clubs take centre stage in new exhibit

Billie Holiday appears lost in song on the Town Tavern stage, her riveted audience close enough to reach out and touch. It's one of the most striking images on display as part of a new show about this city's jazz clubs.

St. Lawrence Market Gallery show highlights 'architecture of entertainment' in past clubs

An archival image shows Billie Holiday on stage at Toronto's Town Tavern. (John Rieti/CBC)

Billie Holiday appears lost in song on the Town Tavern stage, her riveted audience close enough to reach out and touch. 

Behind her, Toronto's star drummer Archie Alleyne keeps the rhythm on a white kit that matches Holiday's dress. Later he'd write about that special night, and the story stuck with jazz historian Ralph Coram.

A TTC streetcar passes the former Town Tavern on Queen Street in an archival image on display at the market gallery.

"It was a noisy club and when she came out on stage everybody was quiet, even the kitchen staff stopped working and they came out to watch her," Coram told CBC Toronto as he looked at the black-and-white image.

The picture is one of dozens on display as part of the Notes in the Night exhibit, which is running at the St. Lawrence Market Gallery until late June. Coram spent years assembling the show, which focuses not on the musicians but the long-lost jazz clubs that once sprang up throughout downtown Toronto. The "architecture of entertainment," as he puts it.

"I'm looking for the background of the clubs, the audience ... the vibe."

Exhibit curator Ralph Coram says he wanted to focus not just on the musicians, but the fans and audience as well.

The Town Tavern was just one of some 75 clubs that have come and gone since 1946. Few are still standing today.

The exhibit features archival photos, but also concert posters and other promo material. Here, Bob Ross, left, and curator Ralph Coram look over some of the rare finds. (John Rieti/CBC)

Bob Ross owns The Rex Hotel, on Queen Street West, which is still open today. Touring the exhibit, Ross was enthralled with the glimpses back at long lost clubs, like George's Spaghetti House.

"Bad corner, but great club," he said.

"The waiters would go by — 'Who's got the spaghetti and meatballs?' — right in front of the horn player, you know. It was great, wonderful!"

As clubs like The Savarin Tavern, The Colonial and The Bermuda Onion closed down, Ross managed to keep his venue running, sometimes salvaging bits of brass rail from old clubs to add to the ambiance of his place. 

A mock protest greets members of the Boss Brass.

About the Author

John Rieti

John Rieti covers city hall and city issues for CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country in search of great stories. Outside of work, catch him running or cycling around, often armed with a camera, always in search of excellent coffee.