Blog #3) The Rex: “Where Jazz Lives” www.therex.ca
In the (almost) heart of downtown Toronto, the small, unassuming, quiet corner of Queen and St. Patrick Street hosts some of North America’s best and brightest jazz folk on an (almost) daily basis. The Rex Hotel, established in the late 80s is a “retro-chic” play on the standard, be-boping, horn-wailing jazz establishments found in New York City, a prime stomping ground for jazz and jazz artists throughout the 20th century and to this day. In the style of New York City’s Birdland and 55 bar, The Rex strikes a wonderful balance between laid-back artists and high-energy performances. The dimly lit, frequently packed bar features a tiny stage in the front on the right. Musicians often spillover onto the floor in front and sometimes off to the side near the door. The second floor features a number of guest rooms, as it is in fact a hotel.
The music is incredibly broad ranging, featuring styles that stretch from hard bop to acid jazz. There is often pop-flavoured jazz, vocal jazz, rhythm and blues, and big band jazz. Inherent within the structure of the establishment is an apprenticeship model based on early jazz clubs like Birdland, where younger musicians would come in to learn by watching the seasoned musicians play for hours. Eventually, the younger musicians would (if they were lucky enough) be asked to come up onstage and join in. Many seasoned jazz musicians frequent The Rex including teachers at institutions such as the University of Toronto and Humber College. Often, these musicians bring their students to “jam” on Monday nights, the night specifically designated for musicians who attend these institutions. Other times, a big band will be arranged in which seasoned musician and amateur student will be playing side-by-side. I see this as following the traditional model, which taught musicians such as John Coltrane (who learned from Charlie Parker) and Wynton Marsalis (who learned from Art Blakey) how to play. Although traditional in this sense, the modern aspect of this practice comes through in the extremely wide range of musical genres heard at the Rex. Many varieties of instrument groupings, ensemble sizes, and musical styles are found on any given day.
The social nature of the establishment is evident in that the community is very tight knit, yet very welcoming. Many of the players know each other, or have studied under the same teachers. Although a large number of the players leave the city (oftentimes to go to New York to study or gig), they frequently perform at the Rex when they are back in Toronto. This consistency also contributes to the familiarity of the place.
Atmospherically, the Rex is very intimate. Dark, sometimes crowded, but always laid back, the unassuming exterior and informal interior mirrors the outward attitudes and appearances of many of the musicians. The walls are covered with pictures of jazz legends past and present, and many of the photos were taken in the Rex itself. The space is slightly crowded but very cozy. Midway through a set, the musician(s) will generally hang out in the crowd and mingle, and typically the musician(s) know many audience members. As the tip jar floats around in between sets, the musicians often joke around about need for generous contributions as they are in need of bus fare. All of these facets of The Rex contribute to its intimate atmosphere.
The commonly prevalent gap between performer and audience that so often surfaces in Western classical performances is all but eliminated at The Rex. Whether it is because the stage is so close to the seating, or because most of the time the performers know many audience members, or whether it has to do with the more relaxed and acutely unique energy of the music itself, the performers are very much a part of the audience, and the audience is infused within the performance. The standard acknowledgement of a soloist’s improvisation allows the audience to interject and permeate the divide between the stage and the seating, allowing for a more intimate relationship between the two “social classes” that surface as a result of the stage set-up.
The Rex offers the traditional features of a classic jazz bar, but with just enough informality to make it genuinely intimate and inviting. I argue that it is one of the most “authentic” jazz spots in Toronto, as it invites the blurring of the lines between performer and audience and between teacher and student. The Rex, with its apprenticeship-based structure pays homage to the jazz greats of the 20th century, and invites young and upcoming artists to add to the tradition without any fear of straying too far from it. The opportunity for eclectic new styles is ample, and the support for young artists is immense. Students frequently pack the bar just as much if not more than seasoned jazz lovers and professional musicians. In an age where jazz is being institutionalized and “Classical-ified”, the Rex fights back and opens its doors to allow for free-flowing, improvisatory and extremely varied creativity, a tribute to the art form itself.