Toronto’s Jazz Jam Sessions

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Each year, players from across the country and beyond come to Toronto for a chance to get on stage with some of the finest players out there. But if a newcomer to Toronto asked me where the local jazz scene plays out, I’d have a very hard time suggesting any more than one or two spots. And the more I think about it, it seems that this is not just a problem for out-of-towners, but for many local Toronto players too.

It’s true, creating an active jazz community is extremely difficult. But Toronto is endowed with many great musicians, three successful jazz schools, lots of venues, and even 21st century social media at its disposal. So where have things gone wrong?

Perhaps mentioning how many great players live and play in Toronto is already redundant, because we all know it. What is unfortunate is that many of them seldom share the same stage. It’s true that some jazz musician circles in Toronto are pretty tightly knit, but many don’t realize how big the Toronto music scene really is, and how many players there actually are. Every now and then I’ll hear musicians, young and old, talking about other musicians and how they have heard of one another, but have never heard each other play. What a shame, considering they probably live within a half an hour drive from each other. But unless you’re playing a jobber together, or a bandleader happens to hire you both, your chances of meeting on stage are pretty slim.

With three jazz schools positioned rather far from each other, players are coming out each year finding a Toronto jazz scene that they know very little about. The integration process, even for fantastic young players (although not impossible by any means) can be a discouraging one. Toronto jazz schools have independently developed a solid student community within their respective campuses (with opportunities to play at local pubs, take classes together, and mingle with teachers), but have yet to work together to bridge their jazz programs across universities. As a result, university students graduate with a Humber-centric view, or a York-centric view, neither of which really encompasses what the full Toronto scene is actually all about. It is true that young players (especially in Toronto) get frequent opportunities to attend fantastic local shows, but trying to count the places where these young players have a chance to actually play with one another doesn’t even take up a full hand.

No doubt, as far as networking goes, services like Facebook, Twitter and the web at large are unmatched. But there is such a thing as too big a pond. And that’s what social media has done: bypassed the pond and gone straight to the ocean. Toronto musicians make some use of these promotional tools, but are often found drowned out by the thousands of other musical happenings around town and beyond on any given night. How can it be even remotely possible to focus attention on a community of local players when everyone is scattered in a gigantic, globalized network? It is often easier to find out who is playing and putting out records in New York City over Toronto, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, unless I lived in Toronto! It needs be about building a local community first, and a global one second. Not the other way around.

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But great players, eager students and a bustling social network shouldn’t be hurting the scene. In fact they are the essential building blocks needed to bring talented people together under one roof. I believe that the missing piece here is the glue; the bond that facilitates interaction between these loose parts. In my opinion, the answer is more jazz jam sessions.

Looking at the two best known, ongoing public jams – the Classic Rex Jazz Jam and Girls’ Night Out at Chalkers – one can go on and on about why these two are insufficient and do not accurately represent the Toronto scene. In just a few sentences, The Rex Jam (the session geared towards Toronto’s instrumental jazz scene) is often dominated by players whose only outlet is the jam itself. Unfortunately, the scene at the Rex Jam is not the Toronto jazz scene, but the Rex Jazz Jam scene, and it doesn’t take long to get acquainted with the crowd, as they show up week after week often playing the same handful of tunes. Girls’ Night Out at Chalkers on the other hand (the session geared toward Toronto jazz singers) consists of a large majority of jazz vocal amateurs, while its mid-town location makes it inconvenient to get to.

Ideally, jam sessions should be places where players of intermediate to advanced skill level can feel comfortable playing their hearts out; where older players can foster the younger ones to learn the tunes, the tradition, and develop the future; where musicians from the near and far corners of the city can share thoughts, ideas, and drinks. It’s not that there is something inherently wrong with either the Rex Jam or Girls’ Night Out. Naturally there will be pros and cons to any jam, and not one jam is going to cater to every kind of musician. It is just that these jams alone do not come close to representing the Toronto jazz scene and providing a suitable environment for a majority of Toronto players.

I don’t think it’s about particularly reforming any existing jam, but instead developing more of them, each aiming to bring different groups of people together from across this big city. Jam sessions should be welcoming and encouraging, with a focus on developing a community of Toronto players.

The Purple Cabbage
May 2011

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About The Purple Cabbage

A Toronto Jazz and creative music blog featuring interviews, new releases, culture, shows, and all things Toronto Jazz.
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