Ted Quinlan. Photo credit: Bill Beard.The crunch of a crisp brown leaf underneath one’s foot; the chill of the wind as it comes off the lake; a Conservative premier embroiled in a minor controversy about his comments regarding immigration and labour. Though the pandemic is far from over, it certainly seems as though Southern Ontario is getting back to its typical autumn rhythm. 

Things are much different, however, than they were at this time last year: with a proof-of-vaccination system in place, steadily declining case numbers, and capacity limits gradually being lifted for a variety of indoor business spaces, we may be forgiven for permitting ourselves a sense of cautious optimism. It is a great relief to be able to contemplate the idea of meeting friends for a drink and a show without feeling an immediate sense of imminent dread (although I suppose this is somewhat dependent on the show and the friends in question).

Read more: Fall with a spring in its step

Photo by Ori DaganAh, September. Across the country – as books are cracked open, backpacks are zipped up, and “”back to school” carries a whole different set of connotations: a pervasive sense of COVID-related anxiety weighing heavy on the collective national consciousness. It still doesn’t quite feel as though things are getting back to normal. It does, however, feel as though we’re gradually heading in the right direction, further potential lockdowns notwithstanding. Let’s hope so: for the venues I cover here, it’s a knife-edge situation still. 

As I have documented in multiple pieces over the last year, the pandemic has been exceptionally difficult for Toronto’s club scene, not least, as I outlined in a recent article, the exorbitant insurance premiums that venues have been asked to pay this year. For many venues, this development intensified existing financial hardship, introducing yet another element of precariousness to the Sisyphean task of hosting live music. 

The changing season, however, brings with it a kernel of hope. Though jazz venues don’t follow the same seasonal cycle as classical institutions, the relatively recent date – July 16 – of the return of live music means that this fall represents a potential turning point for clubs. Having had the summer to hire/re-hire staff, implement new safety protocols, make changes in payment policies, and attend to the myriad other demands of the reopening process, clubs are as ready as they’ll ever be to get back to business, whatever that may look like as the fall progresses into winter. 

Read more: For the clubs it’s not a moment too soon

Last month, the Kensington Market Jazz Festival and the Canadian Online Jazz Festival provided concrete examples of virtual engagement on a large scale, showing programmers, audiences and musicians what digital festivals can look like. Musicians, meanwhile, have spent the year grappling with questions of engagement on a deeply personal level. 

With live audiences largely inaccessible, being a professional musician in 2020 has also meant being a recording engineer, a videographer and a social media planner. It has meant paying more for an upgraded internet connection, purchasing studio monitors and interfaces, and soundproofing apartment bedrooms. It has meant, in a virtual world, that musicians must contend with an idea of themselves as a brand, a glowing, disembodied presence on the screens and speakers of listeners. 

This month, I spoke to six different musicians – saxophonist/vocalist Emily Steinwall, drummer Jon Foster, producer/keyboardist Adrian Hogan, guitarist Rod Rodrigues, drummer Robert Diack and guitarist (and WholeNote contributor) Sam Dickinson – about their experiences with the great virtual shift. What follows are extracts from our discussions that involve home recording, livestreaming, brand maintenance and authenticity. Many thanks to these interviewees for their generosity and honesty; all told, I received close to 7,000 words worth of material, enough for several months’ worth of coverage at my standard word counts here.

Read more: Going Digital: Six Musicians Reflect on the Great Virtual Shift

Billy Newton Davis (KMJF)A month ago, as I was putting together the October edition of this column, it seemed as though the live music scene in Southern Ontario was beginning – cautiously, carefully – to reassemble itself. Clubs were posting listings on their websites; artists were beginning to advertise gigs on social media; it was possible to plan a night out. Then, on October 10, restaurants in at least three regions were ordered closed for indoor seating and live music was put on hold once again. While there are still some clubs that are presenting shows, including The Jazz Room in Waterloo, there is a cloud of uncertainty hovering over the industry: venues, musicians and patrons alike. If case numbers go down, will venues be permitted to reopen? If they reopen, will audiences feel safe (and motivated) enough to seek out live music? 

Meanwhile, amidst the gnawing uncertainty, two organizations have committed to presenting major jazz festivals in November, in streaming formats, with a full range of venues, from clubs to concert halls, involved, playing their part in keeping the music alive.

Read more: Rolling with the Punches: A Tale of Two Virtual Festivals

As the sticky, heady haze of summer lifts, the coming of autumn usually heralds a period of productive reorientation, a clearing of the mind, a collective refocusing of eyes on the road ahead. This year, of course, is not a usual year, and, rather than providing reassurance, many of the traditional markers of the changing season are inducing no small amount of anxiety. Teachers and students return to schools amidst a tumult of hopeful precautions, increased screen time and burgeoning case numbers; CERB, a lifeline for out-of-work gig-economy workers, including many musicians, is set to end; the prospect of seeing family and friends continues to be fraught with peril. (Alternatively: for those who wish to avoid spending time with their extended family, COVID-19 has provided an irreproachable excuse.)

Throughout it all, however, Southern Ontario seems to be settling into an abnormal normalcy, a return to something resembling pre-COVID fall. One of the most exciting musical developments has been the reopening of many jazz clubs, under strict physical-distancing guidelines. Some clubs, like The Emmet Ray, have been open throughout the summer, for takeaway food and beverages, patio service and, eventually, dine-in service, with live music; others, like The Rex, stayed closed until they could reopen all at once, music included.

This October issue marks the first month that listings have been available from individual clubs since March. If you check the Mainly Clubs, Mostly Jazz listings in this magazine (page 47), they may look a little sparse; there are a few reasons for this. The first reason: while many venues have begun to host live music again, the booking process is complicated, and, at the moment, not all venues have their schedules confirmed months (or even weeks) in advance. The Rex is one such club. Though The Rex is presenting two shows a day, their booking process – at least at the time that I wrote this column – is happening on a week-by-week basis. The second reason: some clubs, unsure of what the coming month will bring, are holding off on advertising and even announcements, lest regulations suddenly force them to cancel gigs (or cancel dine-in service altogether). The third reason: some clubs, including 120 Diner, N’Awlins and Alleycatz, have closed.

Read more: Something Resembling Fall
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