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Best of Toronto

The Best Jazz Bars in Toronto

Posted by Guest Contributor / December 12, 2008

jazz TorontoToronto jazz may not have its own distinct sound in the way that New Orleans or Chicago does, but given the city's status as cultural hub and home to an astounding number of ethnic groups, its main distinction is the sheer level of talent, quality and diversity within.

Live jazz in Toronto has changed radically in recent years. When Jazz Report Magazine editor Bill King was asked to name the hottest current jazz clubs in the city for the International Association of Jazz Education (IAJE) in 2003, he picked three: Top O' The Senator, Montreal Bistro and The Rex Jazz & Blues Bar. Today only The Rex is still in business.

But if high-profile, historical jazz clubs have faded in recent years, the wealth of talent in the city has only grown. It seems more than ever clubs are opting for PWYC covers, hole-in-the-wall bars are providing intimate settings, and artists are engaging in spontaneous collaborations. Seems like a pretty exciting creative moment to be in, even if you're just stopping in for a pint.

Writing by Joel Elliot. Photos by Joel Elliot and Zoe Alexis-Abrams.Top photos by KJ Lloyd, Daniel Marcincak and Dube on Flickr.

The Rex Jazz & Blues Bar

The Rex Jazz & Blues Bar

With some 19 shows a week and relatively cheap entertainment, food and drinks, The Rex may be the most popular jazz bar in Toronto by default, but it's also built its reputation by featuring everything from internationally-renowned artists to up-and-comers like the weekly U of T jazz ensembles. With a sound so loud that it spills out into the street on any given night, it's inescapably magnetic, even if you have trouble finding somewhere to sit. More »

Gate 403

Gate 403

Occupying that cozy space in between local pub and classy piano bar, Gate 403 somehow manages to pull off being the perfect spot for young romantic couples and singles who need to cushion their loneliness with some sultry blues. An intimate setting that favours smaller ensembles, the bar still manages to fit in the coolest grand piano in the whole city. Hands down. More »

Reservoir Lounge

Reservoir Lounge

It's in a dimly-lit basement, and yet the Reservoir Lounge may just have the brightest atmopshere of any bar on this list. The bands, which tend to lean towards early be-bop, swing and boogie-woogie, are heavy on performance, giving the whole place a martini-glass sexiness that makes it impossible to walk by the stage without shaking your ass. More »

Dominion on Queen

Dominion on Queen

The Dominion used to be a brewery way back in the late 1800's; today they have 15 or so beers on tap and live jazz most nights of the week. The pub has a special kind of community focus with its Corktown Radio project, and frequent open jams. More »

Grossman's Tavern

Grossman's Tavern

Grossman's is the token poor man's jazz club here. There's never a cover, and there's live music every night. The bar carries high points for authenticity, and not just as a grimy "House of Blues" - Sunday's 5-hour open jam sheds all traces of formality and separation between performer and audience. More »

The Tranzac Club

The Tranzac Club

It started out as one of the many worldwide clubs for Australian and New Zealand culture, but has expanded to be Toronto's premiere centre for avant-garde and fringe music, with drama and other performance art as well. Galleries and studio spaces are great, but most of them don't have this many beers on tap. More »

The Pilot Tavern

The Pilot Tavern

The jazz is mainly focused on Saturday afternoon matinees, but with its long countertop that wraps around the stage it may be one of the best designed bars in Toronto for watching performers. Originally set up in 1944 to honour the RCAF, its aviation theme is more than just a clever design. More »

Lula Lounge

Lula Lounge

Toronto's premiere Latin jazz club, set in the Brazilian Quarters of Dundas West, the Lula Lounge is also one of the best combinations of live club and dancehall as well. The skill on their feet of some of the regulars can make it intimidating for novices, but the club has a dinner and dance lesson package on weekends to coax out your inner rhythm. More »

The Home Smith Bar

The Home Smith Bar

Located at The Old Mill Inn and Spa, the Home Smith Bar might appeal primarily to people already guests or visitors of the site, but the bar does host some of Toronto's top jazz artists on weekends. The $10+ cover means it's not the cheapest place to catch these artists, but if you like cozy turn-of-the-century decor, it's worth checking out. More »

Reposado

Reposado

A fairly new establishment that's gaining a reputation as Toronto's best Tequila Bar, Reposado also has a phenomenal house band that plays twice weekly, adding to the bar's Spanish flavour by throwing flamenco and other styles into their more traditional jazz. The low-lit bar can get a little tight for space, but you can always escape downstairs where the washrooms double as private listening booths. More »

Harlem

Harlem

Another up-and-coming restaurant/live club, Harlem is one of the few places devoted to African culture in Toronto in all its forms, from the Jamaican cuisine to live soul, jazz and Motown music and visual art. It's a shame that the elegant design of the main floor doesn't extend to the upstairs where the live music is featured. More »

Quotes Bar & Grill

Quotes Bar & Grill

Featuring amusing quotes from celebrities all over the walls and menus, and located across the street from the Roy Thomson Hall, Quotes Bar & Grill has inherently caught on with Seniors. Jazz is only offered on Friday evenings with the Canadian Jazz Quartet and the food is moderately-priced so it's not the kind of place to drop in casually. More »

Ten Feet Tall

Ten Feet Tall

With a design like your eccentric aunt's kitchen, Ten Feet Tall has a quirky, cafe vibe that gives it a friendlier atmosphere than most jazz clubs. With lots of light and colour, it's one of the best places here to go for a matinee show, which they feature every Sunday. More »

The Orbit Room

The Orbit Room

Jazz is just a small portion of the music featured at The Orbit Room, along with funk, soul, classic rock, reggae and R&B. It's owned by Alex Lifeson of Rush, which explains a lot of the repertoire, as well as the celebrity sitings, on and off the stage. Warning - the music contained within tends to inspire bad dancing. More »

Discussion

50 Comments

Corina / December 12, 2008 at 11:26 am
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Love the Rex... always find a place to sit down, and it's so cozy in the winters.

Great post, btw.
Brad J. / December 12, 2008 at 11:33 am
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Dominion on Queen--yes! Queen East is the new Queen West!
Keidi / December 12, 2008 at 12:18 pm
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I have yet to go to The Rex
Cynthia / December 12, 2008 at 12:51 pm
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Please let me know which ones are good so I can review them for my online magazine! :)

C

Chester Pape / December 12, 2008 at 01:39 pm
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These places are for local talent and it's a great thing that we have that local talent and that they have places to play. The thing with the ToS and Montreal Bistro was that in addition to the top local talent they brought in international acts (at necessarily premium prices) and that has completely disappeared now, if you want to see a top jazz act you have three options, hope they play in a soft seat theatre (Massey, RTH, Weston) with less intimacy, wait for the jazz festival or hotfot it to new York. It's really to bad that since the Montreal closed nothing like it has reappeared.
Filomena Jolic / December 12, 2008 at 01:59 pm
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The Reservoir Lounge gets my vote big time!! They have an amazing band led by Tyler Yarema that everyone should check out on a Tuesday or Saturday nite! I've posted some videos of them on YouTube. Take a listen (=
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Siz_CtWDBNc
badbhoy / December 12, 2008 at 02:56 pm
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I have been going to the Rex for years and I love the place. It's relaxed and inviting unlike some places that cater to jazz snobs only. The music is fantastic and some of the UofT ensembles I have seen have been incredible. To witness a full brass band in a small club is difficult to find now days.

Not crazy about Reservoir Lounge. I find it a contrived and overpriced. It's probably just because I can only take about 10 minutes of the atmosphere before I start making Vince Vaughan "you're so money, baby" jokes.
Breanna / December 12, 2008 at 03:24 pm
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No Lorraine's?
Adrian / December 12, 2008 at 07:31 pm
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Great post....even though it will be very hard to beat the Rex in this category! They...ROCK..lol!!!

Congrats!
Lorne / December 12, 2008 at 08:37 pm
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Does anyone else miss the Montreal Jazz Bar and Bistro?
Dafydd / December 13, 2008 at 11:07 am
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re: Toronto not having its own sound, I have to disagree. There's definitely something distinct about the way most of the city's younger musicians play. Very creative, unselfconscious and very unique to Toronto.
Zaira / December 13, 2008 at 11:34 am
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reservoir lounge is beyond my favourite place to spend any evening. that's just it.
Corina replying to a comment from Dafydd / December 13, 2008 at 11:49 am
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I think Toronto's sound is merely the result of our jazz programs, which seem to take a very non-traditionaist approach to the music.

From the jazz people I have met from Humber and York lately, there's a real PUSH to make distinctive music in Toronto's scene... not sure if this will produce better music, but it does serve to create the 'creative/abstract' young jazz sound in our city.
Zed / December 14, 2008 at 09:56 pm
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The Old Mill has some great jazz happening on weekends as well
Heather replying to a comment from Filomena Jolic / December 15, 2008 at 09:04 am
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Hey thanks!

I'm really liking what I hear - can't wait to check it out in person.
avril / December 15, 2008 at 03:15 pm
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Hey! GTA includes west side, ya?
So, where's MOMO's bistro?? Hmmm?

It's the only place on the west side that's sweet and sexy and warm and friendly and has a line up of excellent artists.

Even a great menu! It's a jewel, seriously.
check it out: http://momosbistro.com/
Topparo / December 15, 2008 at 04:57 pm
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I live in the West end of Toronto and am surprised to see the exclusion of MOMOS Bistro from the list. I've been a customer of theirs for almost 4 years and have seen some fantastic artists. You should really consider including this venue as it is one of the handful of places left supporting the local scene.
avril again replying to a comment from avril / December 15, 2008 at 04:59 pm
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p.s. re MOMO's on the Queensway...

AND no cover AND flattering light AND lotsa parking AND has been there SIX YEARS.

Add to your list, please and thanks?
Donny Hathaway / December 16, 2008 at 01:47 am
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What really burns me about the demise of Montreal Bistro is that the space is still empty two and a half years later. Losing Top of the Senator though was by far the worst thing to have happened to the Toronto music scene. It was one of the last serious jazz club in the city and has not been replaced since.
guy coolin / January 3, 2009 at 06:59 pm
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i love laura hubert every monday @ grossmans, she is an authentic piece of the canadian jazz culture..
guy coolin / January 3, 2009 at 07:20 pm
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i work very closely with an organization called cmg entertainment, or www.partytown.ca theres a verve a comin...about an indie-night begning every fri in the new yrs...of which i,ll be doing some of the booking... please send me acontact if you believe you,re an indie with promise..and you want to make a bit of cash along the way... gfcoolin@hotmail.com
guy coolin replying to a comment from Topparo / February 22, 2009 at 09:16 pm
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momos the food too...mmmmmmmmmmmm
karlik / March 12, 2009 at 02:54 pm
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Hi I would like to recommend you very usefu ltorrent search engine - http://torrenttella.com/
You can find a lot of new movies, games and music there. Enjoy it!
Jeff / September 2, 2009 at 09:29 am
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Toronto is in desperate need of a jazz scene revitalization. With the closing of the Bistro and Senator, Toronto is left with only one real jazz club (the Rex). We have some great local jazz musicans in this city but nowhere to showcase them. NYC and Chicago are scenes we can aspire to.
Jim / September 13, 2009 at 08:07 am
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the Rex, great jazz shows, but the poorest sound quality.

I wish they would do somwthing about it !
Miesha / January 10, 2010 at 06:55 pm
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There is a little spot called Joe Mama's. Love, love, love it! The music is smooth, the food is great. An atmosphere to love!!
Glen / March 28, 2010 at 05:03 pm
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Try N'Awlins on King at John, excellent live music, food and service
jfj / April 4, 2010 at 03:37 pm
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For a brilliant night of Jazz you have to check out The Cobourg ( Cabbagetown ) Sunday nights 9pm.
Davis Miller / April 13, 2010 at 02:46 pm
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Point Break - A Perfect Bar Experience in NYC

A local friend recommended and took my Cali group to this amazing bar. He said that mostly locals came here so I didn't really know what to expect ambiance wise... but screw it, the view at this bar was absolutely breathtaking! No joke. I felt like a celebrity w/ superstar treatment as the staff are friendly and amazing to say the very least.

I don't know who the house DJ was but he definitely was playing music right up my alley. It would've been my dream for people to start dancing, but it's all good.

It's a bit sceney for my taste, but it really didn't bother me much. the bartenders knew their stuff, although their 1st cocktail was a little weak, when he saw i understood cocktails the next 2 were stronger. I also liked that even though the place was really hopping the bartender remembered what i was drinking when i came to order another. (he also understood how good a gin hendricks is, and not to overpower it with the mixer). It was amazing to see their “das boot” which is shaped like a boot filled with beer. Don’t get me wrong, I am not drunk…it’s an actual boot shaped beer container ready to be emptied..try it ..you will love it!! Oh..how can I forget, they even have a wheel o' shots where you just have to spin it and have to drink whatever shot it lands on!! Now call that bar creativity at its best!!!

We ordered the Veal and Fish Tacos. They were delicious. Mm! We ended up asking for spoons to polish off whatever remained in the platter. (Faux pas? Who cares as long as it gets in my tummy.) The fries were crispy, but not overcooked, just the way that I like them.

So take in this scene: You walk in to what seems like an overly crowded place, but soon fine an empty table. Time seems to stop and the only indicator of the night moving on is the moon and your brain cells slowly going to bed forever. The music is not to loud and the people around look good, the only thing left for you to do is to enjoy that drink you paid ridiculously low for and laugh at the joke your co-worker just told.

The vibe of the place just never seems to die out and if you happen to spot some NYC socialite, sports player, or star, don't let it get to you... because for that moment, this night they are no long more important than then you. In fact go up to them and introduce yourself!

All in all just a great place to meet new people, or just have drinks with people you already know. I've been to numerous bars in the city but i would say this place is just great. Very welcoming staff, very laid back ambiance. I’ve been here twice after my first visit with my Cali group . I would say its worth the every penny you spend!!
Robin Browne replying to a comment from jfj / April 16, 2010 at 03:56 pm
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The Cobourg has a great vibe - and they're on Twitter!
http://twitter.com/cobourg
Avzal Michael Ismail / April 24, 2010 at 02:21 pm
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Hi Everyone..
Came accross this site by chance. I'm one of the premier pianists from South Africa relocating in 2011 to Toronto.
Would love to get active on the music scene and am hoping to make some contacts with a view to starting something.
I'd especially like to hook up with a bassist and a drummer to work with as a core group in and of itself as well as for bigger projects.
I've worked internationally having opened up for John McLaughlin and the Free Spirits, Irakere and others and I've performed with such notable heavyweights such as as Regina Carter, Donald Harrison, the late Carl Andersen, Canadians such as Bruce Cassidy, Amy Sky and Paul Gross as well as a host of others.
Would be great to meet fellow musicians, jazz lovers and artists and to build up a network of friends and contacts.
Check out my website at www.lightyearsmusic.co.za for a better idea and feel free to drop me a line sometime. Looking forward to hearing from you and to playing with you one day.
Avzal Michael Ismail / April 24, 2010 at 02:21 pm
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Hi Everyone..
Came accross this site by chance. I'm one of the premier pianists from South Africa relocating in 2011 to Toronto.
Would love to get active on the music scene and am hoping to make some contacts with a view to starting something.
I'd especially like to hook up with a bassist and a drummer to work with as a core group in and of itself as well as for bigger projects.
I've worked internationally having opened up for John McLaughlin and the Free Spirits, Irakere and others and I've performed with such notable heavyweights such as as Regina Carter, Donald Harrison, the late Carl Andersen, Canadians such as Bruce Cassidy, Amy Sky and Paul Gross as well as a host of others.
Would be great to meet fellow musicians, jazz lovers and artists and to build up a network of friends and contacts.
Check out my website at www.lightyearsmusic.co.za for a better idea and feel free to drop me a line sometime. Looking forward to hearing from you and to playing with you one day.
Zemina / May 16, 2010 at 12:27 pm
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I went to Harlem Underground (Queen St West location) last night with a few friends of mine to celebrate my birthday in hopes to get away from the traditional dinner then club event format. After checking out their site and reading reviews, I decided--why not?

After last night, I'm now asking: WHY?

It all started off okay. The place was packed and the host tried their best to fit in 7 people in as little time as possible. But that is ALL I can give them credit for.

They seated us close to their patio area, right by the door, and if you happen to go out last night--it was chilly. We had to ask SEVERAL times for the waitress to turn on the heater for us because we were cold. After one status report from her (the manager needed to wiggle some stuff around it to get it working...?) the heater was NEVER turned on and our lovely waitress, when we were paying for the bill, closed the garage door that was open the entire time of the night then asked US why it was open and who opened it.

Additionally, the food was AWFUL. It has NO taste and was extremely heavy. Their entrees do NOT include sides--you have to pay EXTRA for that. As well, gratuities are already included when there's a group of 6 or more. And let me tell you, we did NOT feel as though our waitress deserved a tip.

As well, they no longer have any live performances--which was NOT indicated on their website.

The bad experiences are always the ones you remember first--I will NEVER forget this experience at Harlem Underground, I will NEVER step foot in the restaurant again, and you can be sure that my friends and I will be sharing this experience with other people we know.
Daniel / July 16, 2010 at 09:39 am
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Good morning,
I'm an Italian tourist here in Toronto for few days.
I'm desperately seek for a jazz jam session in Toronto on Friday or Saturday (16-17 July) where I can trst my new brand guitar. Do you have any Infos?

Thanks
Daniel
Daniel / July 16, 2010 at 09:40 am
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Good morning,
I'm an Italian tourist here in Toronto for few days.
I'm desperately seek for a jazz jam session in Toronto on Friday or Saturday (16-17 July) where I can test my new brand guitar. Do you have any Infos?

Thanks
Daniel
Mel / March 12, 2011 at 09:32 pm
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Does anyone remember the Ports of Call? It was a high class restaurant in the 70's, then in the 80's had some awesome jazz on sunday afternoons. Miss that place.
RobM replying to a comment from Breanna / March 21, 2011 at 10:24 am
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Lorraine's is the best hands down, but better that it not show up on any published lists!
Vato / August 17, 2011 at 12:15 pm
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Holly cow! Reading most of these comments and "jazz bar" descriptions leaves me under impression no one is ever looking for the real music... Only for a way to fill up one's stomach. That's sad guys! Especially that there is an inordinate number of dedicated eateries around the city.

After the Top of the Senator and Montreal Bistro's gone the only surviving jazz place is The Rex. And even that one now tends to go gastronomical.... It's a crying shame - a big city with no real jazz club.
WRITER / November 10, 2011 at 12:49 pm
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BULLY TORONTO JAZZ MUSIC ORGANIZATION DOESN'T PAY ARTISTS FOR THEIR WORK!!!PUT THIS MESSAGE ON YOUR FACEBOOK PAGE RIGHT NOW AND PROTECT OUR COMMUNITY - GET THE MESSAGE OUT - BEWARE OF A TORONTO JAZZ MUSIC ORGANIZATION RUN BY A GANG OF EVIL, WEALTHY LAWYERS!!! DON'T WORK FOR THEM - THEY'LL STIFF YOU!!! THIS ORG IS RUN BY A BULLY - THEY'LL GET YOU TO DO ALL KINDS OF WORK FOR THEM AND THEN NOT PAY YOU - WATCH OUT!!! THIS BULLY ORGANIZATION IS NOT HARD TO SPOT - WATCH OUT FOR SUITS AND MEETINGS IN LAWYERS' OFFICES - STAY AWAY - YOU'LL GET BURNED.
Patrick replying to a comment from Jim / November 25, 2011 at 05:50 pm
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Ya, the Rex has lousy sound quality. They need to buy some decent speakers and hire a good contractor to properly install them.
Doug Roberts replying to a comment from Chester Pape / March 2, 2012 at 11:43 am
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I agree to a point Chester. However, there are occasional New York, Vancouver, Montreal bands at the Rex that should partially quench your thirst for musicians from afar (if they're from far away, they must be good, right?). There is a reason that the Montreal Bistro and the Top of the Senator closed: Lack of sufficient support from the general public.
vlad / March 10, 2012 at 02:16 pm
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res lounge and the unmentioned nawlins on king are my favourites. last time i was at the rex the cover was out of sight, the music bad and the limes in the cocktails mouldy, never going back.
Marie Byers / July 2, 2012 at 08:03 am
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As a flight attendant, whenever on layover's I always seek out jazz. My place in Toronto has always been the Home Smith Bar at the Old Mill Inn and Spa... they're just getting better and better. It's known to be one of the the most classy venues for great jazz in North America ! If you attend Thursday nights they sometimes have a surprise quest.. Was I ever shocked to see Matt Dusk sing 2 feet away from me !!! But then, you never know who is going to show up !! The last 2 weeks on Friday and Saturday they have had such greats as Jackie Richardson, Russ Little, Heather Bambrick to name a few of Toronto's best of the best in the jazz festival.

It's right on the subway line...Old Mill...really easy to get to. BTW the bar food is great too, tried the arctic char and free range chicken.
Dave / September 19, 2012 at 03:33 am
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nice
COSPLAY / September 26, 2012 at 11:01 pm
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Lorraine's is the best hands down, but better that it not show up on any published lists!
The brand new htc / December 3, 2012 at 02:08 am
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Youre so right. Im there with you. Your blog is unquestionably worth a read if anybody comes across it. Im lucky I did because now Ive got a whole new view of this. I didnt realise that this issue was so important and so universal. You absolutely put it in perspective for me.
Natalie Miller / January 20, 2013 at 09:15 pm
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There are so many wonderful talents here in Toronto. It is truly amazing. I think that Jazz is quickly gaining its ground again with mainstream. I even hear about Jazz entering the gospel realm. There is actually an event in Feb 16th 2013 demonstrating this for Valentines Day I think you all will like this

"Do you like Jazz? do you love gospel? Well why not have them both. Come out on Feb 16th 2013 for a night of smooth jazz and hot passion with the JazzD'Vine ENT evening with Cameron Ross and Guest.

Book the baby sitters and enjoy a elegant night out The Gospel Cafe
call 905-282-9007 for more information" wonderful forum
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