Of the many experiences that point to our collective hunger for dependable post-lockdown life, none has hit quite so close to home for me as seeing post-secondary students get back to classes. Sure, it still feels like a novelty to watch maskless people thunking melons in the grocery store, restaurant patrons trying each other’s drinks, or a trumpet player mercilessly spraying the floor of a venue with spit-valve effluvia. But – as I experienced on an unexpectedly brisk morning in early September, walking across the University of Toronto campus for coffee with a friend – nothing quite says “we’re back” like overhearing two new roommates arguing about whether hanging a Quentin Tarantino poster would be “edgy and transgressive” or “you know, uh, maybe a bit much, like… politically?”
During COVID, we witnessed seismic changes on the club scene: closures, pivots, renovations, and rebrandings. For some organizations, the enforced and recurring lockdowns meant the end: time ran out. For others the lockdowns bought time for necessary rethinking and new developments.
Hugh’s Room Live
Hugh’s Room Live is one such development.
The original Hugh’s Room opened in Roncesvalles in 2001, and was one of Toronto’s premier destinations for folk music, as well as rock, jazz, world music, and a variety of other genres typical of Toronto’s club scene – in a comfortable, quiet setting with clear sightlines that allowed for the kind of engaged listening that performers relish.
After a 19-year run, though, the venue closed in March of 2020, due to an unsustainably high increase in rent. Then, after a relatively short hiatus, the Hugh’s Room team undertook two initiatives. The first: fundraising, planning and developing a new permanent location: the Broadview Faith Temple, at 296 Broadview Avenue. Originally built in 1894, the Temple was designed by E.J. Lennox, architect for Toronto’s Old City Hall and Casa Loma. Through donations and loans, Hugh’s Room raised more than $2 million for the purchase. A $2.2 million loan from the city sealed the deal. If all goes according to plan, the new east-end iteration of Hugh’s Room will reopen at some point in 2024.
In the meantime, Hugh’s Room Live is operational as a concert presenter, with shows this fall mostly taking place at 3030 Dundas West, in the Junction. A multi-use venue that hosts musical performances, parties, weddings and more, 3030 Dundas is anchored by the restaurant Young Animal, which is owned and operated by the chef Adisa Glasgow. Glasgow – who grew up in South Oropouche, in Trinidad – brings the flavours of his childhood to Toronto, with modern and personal touches (think grilled pineapple chow, curry prawns, and oxtail risotto). The bar menu reflects the same heritage, with drinks like Island Old Fashioned, Tamarind Whiskey Sour, and Scarlet Ibis sharing the bill with a variety of wines and Ontario craft beers.
On Thursday, October 20, Hugh’s Room Live presents Sammy Jackson at 3030 Dundas. Jackson – who took home a Juno Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year for her 2021 album With You – is a young Jamaican-Canadian vocalist who is quickly establishing herself in Toronto and beyond. Joined by pianist Chris Pruden, bassist Mark Godfrey, guitarist Tom Fleming and drummer Ian Wright, Jackson sings modern jazz inflected with pop and R&B, mixing her originals with revamped arrangements of classics such as Every Time We Say Goodbye and All of You.
Poetry Jazz Café
Another organization on the move is Poetry Jazz Café, formerly in Kensington Market, and now located at 1078 Queen St. West. The original Poetry – a long, narrow room, decorated with books, empty bottles of high-end alcohol, and posters of musicians, both local and internationally famous – evoked New York in a way that few other Toronto venues do. It is no surprise, then, that Sean Pascalle, Poetry’s longtime owner/operator, refers to the new location as Poetry Lower Westside.
I spoke to drummer Eric West, who has taken over programming duties at the new location. (Some late-September highlights: the incredible trumpet Kae Murphy, September 24, the group Moonbliss, September 28, and bassist/sound designer Caleb Klager, September 30.) West has a long history with Sean Pascalle: “He and I go back about a decade. I started playing at Poetry while I was doing my undergrad, working quite a bit as a side person in other people’s bands.” Later, West put together his own residency, which lasted for years, and his working relationship with Pascalle grew into a real friendship.
The Kensington location featured a select number of acts playing regular residencies. For the Queen West location, West wanted to “branch out and cast a wider net.” Initial feedback from both staff and clientele started to inform certain decisions regarding weekdays vs. weekends. “The weekend crowd seems to favour more of an R&B/Soul style of music, whereas the weekdays lend themselves well to jazz and experimental music,” West explained, adding that these are divisions definitely not set in stone. Whatever the genre, West has “no doubt that if someone walks in on any day of the week, they’re going to witness a high-quality performance.”
The new space is still undergoing an aesthetic transformation. “Sean works hard to create an atmosphere that both highlights the performers and is attractive to passers-by, who poke their heads in and decide to stay for a drink.” The Kensington location “had a speakeasy, dive-bar kind of vibe,” as West put it. The Queen location distills this spirit in an upgraded facility with better amenities, a kitchen, a back room “for local electronic dance music artists,and more.”
It’s early days – the new Poetry is only four months old – but well worth a visit, both for fans of the original and first-timers wanting to show support for live music as it re-emerges.
Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at www.colinstory.com, on Instagram and on Twitter.