When the invitation arrived asking if I'd like to write a descriptive introductory piece on Toronto, the site of the 2003 IAJE conference, I thought, "what a great honor to be the first to invite and welcome the thousands of distinguished patrons who have made th conference a monumental success."
I first came to Toronto in 1963 as a scholarship student to The Advanced School of Contemporary Music, created by jazz great, Oscar Peterson. Down Beat Magazine provided me with a formal introduction to Toronto. I'd never heard of the city while growing up in Southern Indiana.
Between music theory and performance I walked the streets marveling at the ornate architecture; until early morning hours, I rode the street cars, uncommon in my river basin city, until early morning hours. I clung to the outside staircase of the extinct First Floor Club and watched the magic of pianist Lennie Tristano through an open window. I pledged that one day I would return. And here I am more than 30 years later, celebrating the rapid growth and world-renowned cultural entities that have sprung up during the past three decades.
Toronto is a remarkable city. We speak more than 100 different languages and dialects, and we are home to more than 180 ethnic groups. Two streets intersect and divide the city's downtown core. Yonge Street running south to north, extending from the base of Lake Ontario, and Bloor St. running east to west through numerous ethnic enclaves.
You can take the Bloor line subway a few stops east and savor the finest in Greek cuisine, or a few stops west to sample the best in Korean. Two large Italian communities offer authentic, affordable dining, with nightlife much like that experienced in the old country. Toronto is home to the second largest Caribbean populous in North America; an East and West Chinatown; and Portuguese, Ukrainian, Jewish, German, North African, and Latin American communities. The international view of Toronto is one of a world community, committed to equality and preservation of family and neighborhood.
I guess if you were to single out any one institution as being our connection with the evolution of jazz it would be Massey Hall, opened in 1894. During the 1940s and '50s, Jazz at the Philharmonic and other traveling international productions, used the exquisite facility. Bassist Charles Mingus, and soul mates, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Bud Powell, recorded on the memorable evening of May 15, 1953 for posterity. The result was reissued many times as "Jazz at Massey Hall." Since then every major force in the idiom has at one time or another frequented the stage; even an exhilarating double bill in the early '70s with Return To Forever and Weather Report has not gone from memory.
The Colonial Tavern opened in 1947 with house band, Cy McClean's Rhythm Stompers. Cornetist, Jimmy McPartland's appearance in 1950 established the popular venue as a major stop for touring musicians. Monk, Miles, Chick, Elvin, Gary Burton, and George Bensen all shared the elevated stage at one time or another during the jazz years ending in 1978.
The Town Tavern opened in December 1949 and by 1955 would become the premier showcase for international talent. Many of the giants of jazz found a receptive audience until it closed in April 1971. The Oscar Peterson Trio recorded 'On the Town' for Verve there in 1958. Norm Amadio, Wray Downes, and Maury Kaye were all featured house pianists who lead rhythm sections.
George's Spaghetti House, which opened in 1956 in the old George's Hotel, had an "after hours" policy on weekends. By September, 1960, the club was in full operation. Musician Moe Koffman served as booking agent and house band from 1960-90. Many local players found steady employment in a great venue for shaping bands.
Currently three clubs carry the weight of jazz history in Toronto, featuring top-notch local and international artists.
Just west of Yonge St., the Rex Hotel rolls day and night. With a schedule of local players frequenting the main stage weekday evenings and 3:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. weekends. The room is never short on diversity. Players of all stripes bring new concepts and revisit the past with plenty of bodies in the seats.
At any time during the week you can hear the robust saxophone of former Buddy Rich reedman, Pat LaBarbera and his group, stretching out in any one of the establishments in between road work with Elvin Jones and teaching considerations. The same can be said for bassist Neil Swainson, who plays as many local dates as he can squeeze in when not touring with George Shearing. Drummer Terry Clarke commutes between Manhattan and Toronto, as does pianist Don Thompson.
There are also three prominent jazz festivals serving the community: Downtown Jazz, The Beaches International, and JVC Jazz Festival are all well attended and have solid backing from residents of the city.
The theater district is a must for those living great distances from the major productions. Toronto boasts of The Lion King, Mama Mia, Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin, and the National Ballet of Canada, along with a depth of first-rate, smaller theaters.
For those who think they won't be able to defend themselves from winter's abrasive chill, fear not. Temperatures around here rarely exceed those you'd expect running from gig to gig in Manhattan or Baltimore. The downtown core is connected below ground. There's a labyrinth of shops and transportation facilities making venturing most anywhere comfortable.
One of the greatest thumbs up to Toronto happened this past summer when basketball stars Vince Carter, Hakeem Olajuwon, Anthony Davis, Jerome Williams, and Alvin Williams signed multiyear deals, making Toronto their home for the near future. With the Air Canada Center jammed with Toronto Maple Leafs fans and Raptor fanatics, what sports-minded person would want to venture too far from the downtown core?
With so much to offer and a city open to visitors from all regions of the world, let me be the first to say please come and enjoy everything Toronto has to offer. - By Bill King, Editor of The Jazz Report Magazine and ejazznews.com, and a contributor to Jetsetters Magazine.