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

While most club performances are still off the table for musicians, relaxed physical-distancing guidelines have meant that artists have been able to return to some form of live gigs. Near the end of August, I interviewed three different bandleaders – Joanna Majoko, Jenna Marie Pinard and Allison Au – about their recent performances, their quarantine experiences, and moving forward into “the new normal.” 

Joanna Majoko. Photo by SEAN STORYThe Artist: Joanna Majoko
The Performance: Live-to-air concert for JazzFM, as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival Summer Concert Series, July 24 
The Band: Joanna Majoko, vocals and percussion; Jeremy Ledbetter, keyboards; Andrew Stewart, bass; Larnell Lewis, drums

Finding balance in quarantine:

“Thankfully, quarantine has not affected my ability to create or practise. It’s been a blessing to have had this time to create a harmonious work environment here at home, and to set up a small home studio and explore and diversify my musical interests, such as getting more comfortable and experienced with recording as well as trying my hand at vocal mixing. I don’t think I would have explored these avenues had it not been for quarantine. The only major aspect quarantine has affected is my ability to perform.”

Read more: Three bandleaders on then, now, and next

The RexIn the wake of ongoing worldwide protests in support of anti-racist social reform, major Canadian arts institutions have expressed statements of commitment to look inward and address their own programming selections, hiring practices and artistic choices. 

Amidst promises to do better, major institutions have the benefit of time and major financial resources to stay afloat; meanwhile, Toronto’s clubs face an uncertain future. Though it is imperative that venues of all sizes think critically about their own internal biases, it is small venues, rather than large, that have the greater capacity to provide space to diverse programming, having a mandate to develop and serve their communities, rather than their donor base. 

So, with the advent of summer, and a recent move into Stage 2 of the province’s reopening framework, I connected with representatives of three Toronto venues – The Rex, The Emmet Ray and Burdock Music Hall – to discuss the suspension of live performances, surviving the financial hurdles of quarantine, and moving forward.

Read more: Small Venues – Surviving Suspension, and Moving Forward

The economic ramifications of COVID-19 will play out in the coming months and years, and will have an effect on the artistic community unprecedented in recent memory. But long-term economic effects must, necessarily, be of less concern than the immediate, urgent need to stay inside, to save lives. One of the initial challenges of this period for many of us, no matter how community-conscious we strive to be, was to confront our own natural reaction to view with skepticism any potential changes to our everyday life. The coffee shop where I like to write, the studio space where I like to practise, the grocery store where I like to stop every few days and purchase more cheese than a single man living by himself should have any healthy reason to consume: these communal spaces were the sites at which I experienced the mundane foundational joys of my life. But now, things are different: the studio is closed, the coffee shop is open for takeout and delivery only, and the grocery store, though open, is no longer amenable to the contemplative cheese-counter flâneur.

Read more: Mundane Musings of A Cheese-Counter Flâneur

As I write this – on March 20, 2020, five days into Toronto’s period of mass social distancing and self-isolation/quarantine – all live musical performances have been cancelled in Toronto venues for the foreseeable future. While it isn’t possible to know when, exactly, we will all be able to return to some semblance of normalcy, it is still possible to celebrate the April shows that would have been. In this month’s edition of my column, I’ve interviewed five different artists, involved in four different April shows, including a long-term weekly residency at La Rev, a month-long weekly residency at The Rex, a double-album-release show at the Array Space, and a doctoral recital in the jazz performance program at the University of Toronto. 

It is imperative, at this critical moment in the history of the Toronto music community, to continue to support one another: musicians, venues, patrons, schools, and publications alike. If you’re new to the artists below, please follow them on social media, check out their websites, and, if you enjoy their music, consider purchasing an album on Bandcamp, or on other services. This goes for any of your favourite local musicians, many of whom, beyond cancelled performances, are also experiencing a drastic cut in teaching, recording and other activities. Also, even in the early stages of this period, many musicians are live-streaming concerts, offering online lessons, and creating new ways to interact with the community. So, please: be in touch! Just not literally.

Read more: Social Distancing While Staying in Touch
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