Jonathan (centre) and Andrew Kay (right), at the Rex in Toronto with saxophonist Pat LaBarbera and bassist Roberto Occhipinti. They will be together again for The Coltrane Sutras at The Jazz Room in Kitchener, Dec 9.Given the precariousness involved in the retail and service industries, it is something of a miracle when new grassroots venues emerge. It is not as though larger ventures – such as the nascent Allied Music Centre at Massey Hall – are without risk; presenting live music is always a tricky proposition. Large, established organizations, however, have the benefit of development departments, of long-cultivated reputations within the community, and, typically, of owning the physical space in which they host concerts. For small establishments, the math looks quite a bit different.

An independent restaurant, for example, might decide that a weekly jazz night is a great idea: music will add to the ambience, the band will bring in customers who might not otherwise dine there, and the restaurant will gain valuable support within the community. In practice, however, any number of issues can arise. Perhaps the manager’s idea of jazz is Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me To The Moon,” not John Coltrane playing “Giant Steps;” perhaps the band does bring in new customers, but they’re mostly university students who don’t have the budget for more than an appetizer and a glass of water; perhaps the restaurant, realizing after a month or two that they are losing money, must then cancel the series, much to the chagrin of the band’s family and friends. Everyone involved has acted with the best of intentions, but the series was not sustainable. 

Having witnessed this cycle many times over, in Toronto and elsewhere, it has been a distinct pleasure to see the success of two unique venues that have emerged from the pandemic with an ongoing commitment to hosting live music.

Peter Sellers, outside his College Street bookstore, which has been “moonlighting” as a music venue since June 2015. Photo by Ori Dagan.Sellers & Newel Second Hand Books first opened at 672 College Street in November, 2011. The Sellers & Newel Literary Society – both the name of a performance series and the eponymous mailing list that gets sent out to those looking to keep up to date with the performances – was started in 2015, and quickly grew from there. The shows themselves take place right in the bookstore, against a backdrop of books, vintage chandeliers, and concert posters from past performances. It is a small space, and can only accommodate 30-40 patrons; fittingly, the ensembles that play there are typically small, with an emphasis on duos and trios. On Friday, December 8, Sellers & Newel will host its 12th Anniversary Show, which will feature the trio of guitarist Dan Pitt, saxophonist Brittany Pitt, and vocalist Laura Swankey, playing adventurous, exploratory music.

Bebop Joe'sBebop Joe’s – formerly Antikka – is a coffee shop and record store located at 960 Queen Street W. Like Sellers & Newel, it is a space that does not automatically suggest itself as a live-music venue, but it has cultivated a presence for itself as a regular presenter of concerts, with an emphasis on small ensembles playing jazz and indie music. On select weekday evenings and on weekend mornings/afternoons, catch the likes of vocalist/trombonist Charlotte McAfee-Brunner and guitarist Jared Higgins, guitarist Tak Arikushi, and singer-songwriter Brigit McDermott.

Holly ColeKoerner: Speaking of larger venues, there are a number of interesting shows happening in December that one can experience from some of Toronto’s most comfortable seats. Koerner Hall continues to bring in some of the best and brightest of American jazz talent, with shows by Jon Cowherd, Samara Joy, Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, and Brad Mehldau all on the schedule for this season. (A headlining project from Brian Blade would have rounded out Redman’s famous 1990s quartet.) On December 8, Koerner Hall plays host to vocalist Holly Cole, who leads a holiday show entitled “A Swinging Christmas.” Performing material featured on her two Christmas albums, Cole is joined by longtime collaborator Aaron Davis as pianist, musical director, and string arranger, as well as bassist George Koller, woodwind specialist John Johnson, drummer Mark Mariash, and a string ensemble of students from the Glenn Gould School, the Royal Conservatory’s post-secondary training program. One day later, on December 9, Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective hits the stage, with the Turtle Island Quartet. Blanchard – trumpeter, bandleader, and film, television, and opera composer – will be a familiar name to many WholeNote readers, as will his bandmates, guitarist Charles Altura, pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist David Ginyard, and drummer Oscar Seaton Jr.

Molly JohnsonAt Roy Thomson Hall, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is staging a run of Holiday Pops concerts from December 11 to 13. Conducted by Steven Reineke, the shows will feature vocalists Molly Johnson and Billy Newton Davis, supported by the rhythm section of pianist Robi Botos, bassist Mike Downes, and drummer Davide Direnzo. The show will also feature a “Holiday Chorus” made up of students from the Etobicoke School of the Arts, which is sure to be a formative experience for the high-school students involved. 

Lew TabackinNon-holiday notables: Some other notable concerts are happening this holiday season, none of which happen to be holiday shows. On November 30 and December 1, the legendary saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin takes the stage at Jazz Bistro, playing with the local rhythm section of pianist Mark Eisenman, bassist Pat Collins, and drummer Morgan Childs. At The Rex, rising-star trumpeter/vocalist Madeleine Ertel leads a quartet for a four-night residency, between November 29 and December 2, with the support of violinist Aline Homzy, drummer Aiden McConnell, and Dan Fortin (on November 30 and December 1) and Julian Anderson-Bowes (on November 29 and December 2) splitting bass duties. At the Jazz Room in Waterloo, brothers Jonathan and Andrew Kay lead a fusion ensemble of saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, bassist Roberto Occhipinti, table player and percussions Dhaivat Jani, and drummer Adam Teixeira play The Coltrane Sutras, a “transcultural re-imagining of the music of John and Alice Coltrane.”

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer, and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at, on Instagram and Twitter.

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