Not many people know about the Cobourg. Nestled in a narrow nook in Toronto’s Cabbagetown, with no sign and little publicity, it is certainly easy to miss. But for those who have stepped foot through the doors of the quaint bar on a Sunday night, it is not the sort of experience easily forgotten. The dark lit room flaunts a classy wooden bar in the center of the room, surrounded by vintage furniture, music themed paintings, and chandeliers. The room is small, intimate yet extremely comforting, as the bar staff create a welcoming atmosphere in this neighborhood hangout. Altogether, the vibe couldn’t suit jazz music any better, and with fantastic acoustics and top-notch musicians on top of everything else, the Cobourg holds its own among the best jazz venues in town.
The Purple Cabbage had a chance to catch up with owner and founder John Jay, whose remarkable story about the bar’s inception reads somewhat like a meant-to-be fairy tale.
Purple Cabbage: When did you open the Cobourg and what was the idea and concept behind the pub?
John Jay: We are just coming up on our five year anniversary. I’m an actor. I have no experience in the bar business. I have never worked in a bar or restaurant (as unusual as that is for an actor to say). I also don’t know much about Jazz. Many people who visit the Cobourg might say that the bar accurately reflects my ignorance. The bar used to be a little sandwich and pastry shop, and I live quite nearby and was passing it one day and saw it was for rent. I looked in the window and imagined it might make a nice bar. Then I got a book out from the Library called “How to Own and Operate a Successful Bar”. And then I opened a bar. Oh, I got my wife’s permission first. That was important. I wouldn’t call it a Pub. I’d call it a Bar.
PC: Was there a particular reason behind choosing Cabbagetown as the location for the Cobourg?
JJ: I would never have opened a bar if it wasn’t 60 seconds from my house. That’s how I chose Cabbagetown.
PC: With no sign, and tucked away between a Tim Hortons and a Subway, the Cobourg can easily go unnoticed. What is the reason behind this? Has it worked to create a certain mystery and fascination with the Cobourg?
JJ: I could never really get my head around what a sign might look like for the bar. I’d rather not be pinned down to a certain image or even a font type. It’s just a little shop with old chairs and some nice drinks – and killer jazz on Sundays.
I think by accident it has worked to create the idea that it is a little discovery that you make when you walk in. It’s a surprise to find it, and then when you do, if you have a nice time, you remember it as a special secret place that most people just walk past. I like that, though it wasn’t part of a master plan. I just hated every sign I saw.
PC: Few places have succeeded in giving jazz music and jazz musicians a home for creating this great music. Not only has the Cobourg created a welcoming environment, but has also built an attentive audience week after week. Was this the intention from the start, or was this something that developed over time? How does the Cobourg see itself in playing the role of a jazz supporter and promoter in Toronto.
JJ: I really wanted to have jazz in the bar. It seemed to suit the atmosphere in The Cobourg. But initially there was another bar in the neighbourhood doing Sunday night jazz and I didn’t want to mow their grass. So I used to go over to their place and support what they were doing. Sadly they went out of business. But I immediately started having a trio in on Sunday nights. I have a great friendship with Perry White (the fantastic saxophone player) and he has been instrumental (pardon the pun) in getting the really great musicians in town to come and play at the bar. And amazingly the room sounds fantastic. A complete fluke. Beautiful sound, and the players love it and the intimate nature of the space is really great for both performers and audience. I have to say I don’t see myself as having a role as a promoter in the jazz community. I’m glad we’re doing it. I’m delighted. It’s beautiful. But we’re just over here doing our thing and if you happen to catch it, you might have a wonderful experience.
PC: What, in your opinion, is the key to successfully hosting jazz music in Toronto these days?
JJ: The key to successfully hosting live jazz music in Toronto is to not expect to make money doing it. You might. But in a little place like mine, with a limited capacity, the best reason is because we love the music and the absolute artistry with which those musicians play. It’s easy to host music if that’s all you care about. (I gotta sell my soul the rest of the week to pay for it).
PC: Right now, the Cobourg hosts a Sunday night jazz series. Can we expect to see jazz on more days of the week in the near future?
JJ: For the above financial reasons, I very much doubt that there will ever be Jazz on a regular basis more then one night a week.
PC: How can people find out about who is playing at the Cobourg?
JJ: I have a Facebook group where I usually post a note about who is playing. I’m also on Twitter and send out the same kind of messages. And I make a little poster and stick it in the window of the bar. Pretty full on advertising wouldn’t you say? I gotta do better at promotion. That’s my new, New Year’s resolution that I just made in March. This is part of that. But I’m still not getting a sign.
The Purple Cabbage