When the Trane Studio shut down last August, it seemed like further evidence the city’s jazz scene was in bad shape. But don’t sound the death knell just yet—T.O. jazz is hardier than the clubs that house it.
The next time you hear about a local jazz club going under, take a breath before you start to panic. It’s the same old song we heard when Top o’ the Senator and Montreal Bistro—two of the city’s oldest and most distinguished jazz haunts—closed in 2005 and 2006, respectively. That tune is starting to get tired.
No, jazz isn’t dying, but given the number of venues that have closed in the past few years, you’d be forgiven for making that assumption. The latest casualty is The Annex’s Trane Studio, which closed its doors last August, just shy of its 10th anniversary.
When owner Frank Francis opened Trane on Bathurst north of Bloor in 2003, he says, “I was struck by how little my generation—and the African-Canadian community in Toronto—knew about jazz.”
Born in Jamaica, Francis studied theatre and English at York University and launched the multi-disciplinary Caliban Arts Theatre in 1996. Through Caliban, Francis established the Black on the Ground Project, which aimed to showcase young black musicians playing soul and funk. Francis had also hoped to introduce the participants to the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, artists he felt young people were missing out on.
For nearly a decade, Trane Studio provided a primer in jazz fusion, hosting artists such as Trinidad-born trumpeter Brownman Ali, who played hundreds of shows there, and appreciated Francis’s hands-off approach. “I’d call him up and tell him some crazy idea I wanted to explore,” Ali says. “Towards the end, he’d just give me dates without knowing what I was bringing in. That kind of faith is absolutely rare, and for this artist, a precious gift.”
Francis is vague about exactly why the Trane closed up shop, saying only that “as much as we gloss it over as [just] pretty music, which it is, jazz has a history of struggle.”
Unfortunately for Toronto’s jazz musicians and fans, history tends to repeat itself. As saxophonist Paul Metcalfe can attest, it’s not easy to navigate the city’s fluctuating scene. “Jazz is kind of weird in Toronto,” he says. “It’s really spread out.” Most local clubs that feature jazz performances also offer other kinds of music throughout the week. The exception is The Rex, the last bastion of Toronto venues dedicated solely to jazz and blues. “The Rex is so successful because they did it right,” says Ali. “They bought the building a zillion years ago, and draw income from the hotel business.”
Top o’ the Senator, another exclusively jazz-oriented joint, operated for 15 years, but as the 1990s marched towards a new millennium, business began to taper off. Seven years after the club shut down, its former manager, Sybil Walker, is ready to give it another shot. She’s the general manager of Jazz Bistro, a new venue that will open in February in the old Top o’ the Senator space on Victoria Street, near Yonge and Dundas.
“No club runs as long as the Village Vanguard in New York,” Walker insists. The Vanguard, a famed hole-in-the-wall in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village that opened in 1935, has no equal in Toronto, or pretty much anywhere else in the world. “If you have a business that runs for 20 years, that’s an outstanding success,” she adds. “And it’s always mystifying to me why people think that it isn’t.”
The scattershot rhythm of venues opening and closing may seem foreboding, but Walker insists it has more to do with Toronto’s tumultuous real-estate market than the vitality of its jazz scene. As is the case with any business, club owners are beholden to their landlords. So if you’re looking for someone to take responsibility for the death of jazz, here’s a suggestion: When in doubt, blame condos.
Kuumba’s 10th Anniversary Celebration of the Trane Studio takes place on Feb. 2 at the Brigantine Room at Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay W., 416-973-4000, harbourfrontcentre.com.