Oh not this again...

An interesting article caught my eye today in The Toronto Star. In an interview with Ashante Infantry, saxophonist and Dap-Kings member Ian Hendrickson-Smith talks about his dream - soon to become reality - of opening up a jazz club in Brooklyn (see the article here).

Yes, it's time to once again talk jazz clubs.

The topic of jazz clubs is a popular one here in Toronto, with jazz musicians and supporters either propping up the current clubs or lamenting the clubs long since passed. The idea of opening a new space is appealing, but the realities - real estate costs, competing entertainment options, an uncertain audience base - mean it's difficulty to make it happen. Over the past several months I've spoken to a number of people, wondering what it is that we need in Toronto, how we might make it work, and, perhaps even more realistically, if it can work.

Today's Star article interested me because I think Ian makes a few good points. He says: "Jazz has not been presented in a way that makes it attractive. "It comes off as an intellectual, snobby music...I want to present it as fun and soulful.” And, like it or not, I think he might be right. Despite the reams of incredible musicians pushing jazz in new and exciting directions, whether that means incorporating pop tunes into their repertoire or performing in non-traditional jazz venues, we still too often hear "I don't get jazz!" (In fact, one former writer for a local weekly magazine called jazz "music for the pipe and beard set". That drove me nuts.) I know it's not true - and a trip down to The Rex Hotel on any night of the week will prove that jazz can be just as exciting and inspiring as any "more accessible" music - but it's a perception we need to deal with.

Later in the article, Ian talks about the look and feel of his club: "The atmosphere is going to be very relaxed and caring and the décor is going to be real eclectic and funky — lots of red lights, almost a bordello kind of vibe." Now, I'm not suggesting that all good jazz needs to happen in a house of disrepute, but my experience is that jazz seems to work best in an intimate, relaxed atmosphere. I don't mean so relaxed that people are talking over bass solos, but I've been to certain clubs where I've felt underdressed in a nice pair of slacks and a "proper" shirt...and where drinks were $10 each and an entree was close to $30. And that's before paying cover. Sure - some artist fees dictate a larger performance space, and concert halls will always play an important role in the local jazz scene...but if we're to get past the idea of jazz being "snobby", and make it as accessible as possible (and I'm not talking about "dumbing down" the music, here), I wonder if we need to think more bordello and less supper club.

The last point that I found interesting was his goal of outfitting his club with recording capabilities: "Every night, we’re making a live record of the club. If you’re there and you happen to hear this band that you just loved, you can just pay 10 bucks and have it on your (bill) and we take your email address and you get that set of music in your email box. Our thinking is that the day of the jazz record label is quickly fizzling out. This is almost like an answer to it — a way to put money in the musicians’ pockets directly." I think this is brilliant, and a great way to work with the recent advances in technology rather than rail against them.

So - where does this all leave us? If I re-read this post, it seems as though the formula is easy: find a nice, intimate space, keep the prices low, decorate it in a relaxed fashion, and install high-quality recording equipment. Perfect. The problem is, and I say this without having taken a single accounting class during my jazz degree, that math just don't add up. In order to pay musicians a respectable fee, cover can't always be kept low, and the establishment has to make some money from food and beverage. Sure, we need lots of people to come through the doors, but they have to be willing to pay for what they're seeing - through cover and through a pint or two.

Do we need another Montreal Bistro or another Rex Hotel? Do we need a 55 Bar or a Blue Note? Clearly, it's complicated. If it was easy, Toronto would be full of clubs. But that's no reason to stop trying, and that's perhaps all the more reason to get out there and support those clubs that already are presentng jazz.

What do you think? What kind of club does Toronto need to enhance its jazz scene?


P.S. - Ian Hendrickson-Smith plays tonight (Thursday August 26) at The Rex Hotel, 9:30 pm, with three outstanding local musicians: Amanda Tosoff on piano, Jon Maharaj on bass, and Morgan Childs on drums. I won't be able to make it, but I highly recommend it!

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