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A brief history of The Rex Hotel

Posted by Benjamin Boles / August 9, 2014

rex hotelAsk any longtime Torontonian where to go to hear jazz, and you can expect the first words they say to be the Rex Hotel. For the past thirty years, the hotel's bar has been a fixture in the city's jazz and blues scenes, and continues to host an impressive 19 shows a week. Ownership has stayed in the same family's hands for more than 60 years, and yet surprisingly little has been written about how it became such an integral part of Toronto's musical history.

It's still unclear when the building was originally erected, but when former grocery store owners Jack Ross and Morris Myers took over in 1950 it was already operating as a hotel and beer hall, with a menswear store on the south end. It wasn't until 1960 that the clothing store was replaced with an expanded bar on the main floor.

rex hotelOriginally the rear tavern was separated in two: one side for men, and the other for "ladies and escorts". According to current owner Bob Ross, the clientele during that time period were "primarily semi-skilled workmen from the area, which had a lot of light industries - printing companies, lathers, trucking companies - who came in for lunch and after work, as well as neighbourhood residents who came in the evening to socialize, watch the hockey game on TV, play pool, shuffleboard, and darts."

It wasn't until 1980 that the bar started to book music, in response to the changing face of Queen West. However, initially the dominant sound wasn't jazz, but rather the rockabilly and proto-alt-country sounds of the time. Acts like Handsome Ned were regulars, as well as people like John MacLeod, who continues to be associated with the bar.

rex hotelDuring that time period, Bob Ross started shutting the bar down at midnight, rather than that existing last call of 1 am, in an effort to avoid some of the late-night rowdiness. He'd often end up at the nearby jazz hotspot Bourbon Street & Basement Street, and gradually some of those musicians ended up coming by the Rex between sets, partially because the beer was cheaper.

rex hotelAs Bob Ross recalls it, the impetus to start booking jazz at the Rex came from a night in the mid-80s when renowned Canadian sax player DT Thompson walked in one night playing "When The Saints Go Marching In," strolling around the room while blowing on his horn, and then ending up at the bar, asking "was that good enough for a rye and coke?"

rex hotelThe musician and bar owner got to talking about focusing the booking more on the jazz scene, and since 1985-ish, that's been the format. While the local talent has mostly filled the schedule, they've also seen a huge amount of international names play their small front room over the years: Joshua Redman, Kurt Elling, Maceo Parker, Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis and many more have graced their stage.

Bob Ross handled bookings until about 20 years ago, when Tom Tytel took over. The long-running Tuesday night jazz jam continues to be a fertile breeding ground for young talent to interact with the elder statesmen of the scene.

In 2006, the Rex began to embark on a series of renovations, but unlike the Drake or the Gladstone, they've opted to go much more gradually. The south end of the hotel has been modernized, with individual washrooms replacing the original rooming house-style communal facilities, but the remaining sections are being renovated at a slower pace to avoid disruption of the day-to-day operations.

the rex torontoOver the years, the working class origins of the bar have been gradually and subtly updated, without disrupting any of that old-Toronto charm. Despite the changes, the Rex still hosts a few long term residents, including at least one musician. Bob Ross says it "makes us feel more comfortable at night, knowing there's people there treating it as their home."

In most cities, "downtown boutique hotel with a jazz bar" feels nothing like the relaxed and comfortable vibe of the Rex Hotel, which is likely one of the key reasons it's lasted so long.



Spike / August 9, 2014 at 08:49 am
At least this hotel is what it's always been, renovations and all, unlike the others, which changed everything and also turfed out the original occupants-take that, Drake and Gladstone!
Think again, Spike / August 9, 2014 at 09:15 am
Don't fool yourself, Spike. 30 years ago the original customers were old men who sat drinking draft all day. They got replaced by a more yuppified crowd. I remember the awkward transition time when the old men would take their smokes and shuffle out when the later afternoon/evening crowd pushed in.
Spike replying to a comment from Think again, Spike / August 9, 2014 at 03:05 pm
Yes, I know that old men used to be the hotel's patrons, but the place looks just like it did, 'without disrupting any of that old-Toronto charm' and keeping a few of the residents-the Drake or the Gladstone never did that!
Rickshaw Mike / August 9, 2014 at 06:13 pm
The good old Rex. I remember, kinda, going there in the late 80's when I was 17 / 18 and drinkin 79 cent draughts with my friends. Good times!
Angel / August 9, 2014 at 08:39 pm
Thank you Benjamin Boles!! You are great writer !! Looking forward more of your stuff !!
betty lovegren / August 10, 2014 at 01:48 am
i have such fond memories of the Rex..DT & i used to hang out there quite a bit and then In Walked Bud, and he hung out there also...when DT passed away 10 years ago everyone who loved him turned up for a Jazz Jam Extraordinare!!!
My sister Cat & I will see you there in Sept...
mark hundevad / August 10, 2014 at 03:08 am
This article disgusts me and once again shows how ungrateful a man Bob Ross is. The man who started jazz at the Rex Hotel is saxophonist Jim Heineman and it was his idea and Bob Ross knows that! Jim brought his quartet featuring organist John T. Davis, guitarist Steve Briggs and drummer Mark Hundevad into Rex in the late 80's and we were the house band playing there on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for over 2 1/2 years. Jim's quartet is the band that turned a hangout for drunks (it used to be known as the Sex Hotel) into the jazz club it is today. I was there the night that Tom Tytel got hired. Jim Heineman made Bob Ross a fortune and he payed us peanuts and I am very disgusted at Bob for not mentioning Jim. I do not support this venue and will continue to boycott it!
David Hertzman / August 10, 2014 at 08:49 am
My Grandma Gussie and her Sister bought the Rex Hotel during the depression. My Grandpa Leo had a United Clothing Store fronting on Queen Street. After the war, my Dad Harold Hertzman and his cousin Murry Abron worked the place. It was a good money maker.Grandma Gussie would scoop the cash and go down to Eaton's fine furniture.One day my Dad was on duty, there was an argument and someone pulled a knife. He made a decision that Men's wear was safer than beer and the Hotel was sold to buy a bigger store down on Yonge Street across from Sam the record man. There is a 7-11 there now.
Bar Man / August 10, 2014 at 10:42 am
Anyone who has worked in the old Toronto "hotels" - really taverns + rooms, knows that the tenants were undesirables. Pretence aside, any even slightly more upscale business wouldn't want them. They were hardcore. A cop would come in the main entrance and the place emptied out the women's entrance before the cop made it all the way in. The 'roaches always stayed, however; you always had to shake your coat before you put it on.
Benjamin Boles replying to a comment from mark hundevad / August 10, 2014 at 11:33 am
Hey Mark, Bob Ross did actually mention that Jim Heineman played there quite frequently when I talked to him, but that just didn't make it into the story.
Think again, Spike / August 10, 2014 at 12:30 pm
No, Spike. The Rex today looks (and smells) nothing like the Rex of the '70's. You are grasping at straws in your desperation to put down other projects. Time marches on and things change. Get used to it or move to a city where nothing ever changes or happens.

Mr Jazz Drums / August 10, 2014 at 06:41 pm
A memorable extended stay at The Rex introduced me to the very best jazz and creative musicians in Toronto. Stellar performances that were truly word class, I had been impressed with everything that I heard during my stay. To bad there's some spiders hiding in the closet, but then appreciating it has taken time and hard work to make The Rex the premier Toronto jazz venue it is today. I can only thank Bob, Avi and Tom and staff for their warm welcome and generous hospitality. Looking forward to my next visit to enjoy the lively ambience and more great Canadian jazz with my friends in Toronto. (From London. UK)
Mr Jazz Drums / August 10, 2014 at 07:59 pm
Stayed over at The Rex during my visit from London UK. The Rex is a testament to continued hard work and personal commitment of a small team that are dedicated to jazz, a very rare occurrence in today's entertainment business. Looking forward to my next visit with my friends in Toronto and thanks for giving me a fun time and your generous hospitality.
Katie replying to a comment from David Hertzman / August 12, 2014 at 02:18 am
Thanks for the insight :)
Nokomis O'Brien / August 14, 2014 at 10:09 am
To say that Jim Heineman and John T. Davis ‘just didn't make it into the story’ is poor reporting on your part Benjamin Boles. The FACT is that they started the Jazz scene at the Rex. They played for YEARS every weekend and packed the club every night. It wasn’t just a couple gigs. They changed The Rex into what it is today.
Lucya Almeida / August 14, 2014 at 09:00 pm
Jim Heineman made the Rex what it is today. He had John T. Davis' Hammond B3 organ brought there for an audition (1987) and was hired by Bob and held the longest running jazz gig record for a long time there. He had his family plaster posters all over the city and an entourage of all kinds of artists, photographers, jugglers, etc. Within 3 months of his quartet being there ( Mark Hundevad, Steven Briggs & John T. Davis) The Rex made the Now magazine's "places to be" list, and when Jim played his tune Tecknology I remember people would cheer. And all kinds of musicians would sit in, I saw some of the best performances ever while Jim was there. I am so pleased Jim Heineman was at least recognized by a prestigious international award from the IMA in 2011 because Toronto has largely ignored one of it's great living jazz legends. Jim would be a great person to interview about that time when the Rex became the jazz spot. A short film was made about Jim and John T. called Brothers in Music that was shown at different festivals around the world that had lots of footage from that time at the Rex .
Chad Giroux replying to a comment from mark hundevad / August 20, 2014 at 10:40 am
Ahhhh the Rex. I am 37 years old and have many memories of the old Queen West, including walking by the dingy old Rex. People are foolin themselves if they think the Rex was in any way, shape or form a hip place back in the day. My old man was a thoroughbred alcoholic and even he wouldn't step foot into that place back then. It was a dive bar and perceived as a dump.

Nobody back then could have imagined that today it would not only be a swingin place, but one of the best links to Queen Street's living history. Queen is a sad shadow of its former self. Alot of the indy spirit has been bought and sold... shame. / September 1, 2014 at 01:03 pm
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Mick McClean / June 5, 2015 at 01:43 pm
Used to work at the printers right behind the Rex. Front room was just for men. Back room for ladies and escorts. Huge platters of draft about 15 a glass. This was early to mid 70s. Bob was usually running things but his Dad was there also. Rowdy clientele occasionally had to be walked out by Bob and it didn't matter how big they were. Was a working hotel also.
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