The Rex is Toronto's listening room and community space for jazz lovers
For both its longevity and location, The Rex is by far the most famous jazz venue in this city. Literally millions of locals and tourists have listened to jazz at 194 Queen Street West since the establishment began booking bands in the early 1980’s.
"It's a very eclectic clientele here: young, old, lawyers, ripped jeans, tattoos, it's a mixed bag. But the music speaks to everyone so that makes sense." says Avi Ross, the son of owner Bob Ross who started the music policy in 1981.
For many years each day at The Rex consisted of 4 shows a day on weekends and two shows per evening on weekdays, with a diverse array of jazz styles represented from instrumental to vocal, piano trios to big bands, blues, Dixieland, New Orleans, traditional, experimental and above all, Canadian.
"Our first show back after the shutdown was on Canada Day, outside on St. Patrick Street as we weren't doing music inside yet," recalls Avi. "It was an emotional show – just to see live music again and to see the crowd. People have been very enthusiastic – after being locked up for so long, it has been so meaningful for everyone to be social again."
The breaking live music news regarding The Rex's re-opening is the renovations which took place inside, – renovations which would not have been possible in the before times due to time constraints.
It took a pandemic for this venue to be transformed from a highly musical tavern into a respectful listening room.
The shutdown gave us the opportunity to touch things up, to clean things up…repaint the walls, put up some new pictures, but also a big part of it was the stage renovation.
Music is the most essential part of our business, so why not give the audience better sound? So we have a new stage, new speakers, a whole new system. The musicians love it and the audience does too…
When we reopened, because of covid protocols and restrictions, we changed our style a little bit. The Rex used to be jam packed elbow-to-elbow, very social, very loud, but now we pivoted and it's more concert style seating, where everyone comes in to really take in the music, and it is working for us, so far so good.
When the province moved to Stage 3 of re-opening back in July, it became required for live music venues to have plexiglass or "some other impermeable barrier" between audience and artist – specifically singers and "players of brass or woodwind instruments" due to possible droplet spread.
Most clubs have adhered to this in some form of another, but none as extensively as The Rex. Avi Ross shares with blogTO that they wanted to "make sure that musicians and customers felt safe" so they invested in "tall 8-foot high plexiglass barriers that span across the stage to separate musicians from audience."
Ross says half the battle is just making sure people feel safe when they walk into The Rex so they can let their guard down a bit and just enjoy the music.
Regular customer Nancy Davey, who writes about the Toronto Jazz scene on her Instagram account takes live jazz very seriously.
"My biggest complaint about The Rex before the pandemic used to be that people didn't listen and did too much chatting. Today, it is a wonderful venue for listening. I love the sound system, and the fact that all of the tables face the stage."
Indeed, another additional huge change in the re-invention of The Rex is that the tip jar is gone: all shows now have tickets. Back in the day, in most cases musicians would come around from table to table, filling a transparent "music appreciation" receptacle with cash – far from glamorous.
Back then usually the musicians ended up doing okay because of solid attendance and a culture of fans who knew they had to bring cash for the band. Many customers would toss in $5, $10, $20 in the hat, sometimes more.
These days any sense of normalcy enveloped in nostalgia is a good sell, and such is the case with the return of the Classic Rex Jazz Jam on Tuesday evenings.
Traditionally the jazz jam is an evening where musicians play a set and then open it up for others to join, so that anyone is welcome from young students to friends of the band.
At The Rex, the Tuesday jam these days is hosted by tenor saxophone player Chris Gale, and he's happy to be doing it.
"It's all about community, and providing another performance outlet for anybody who feels like playing some jazz," says Gale.
"This place is an institution and so is the jam itself. It's nice to keep it going. If the last year and a half has taught us anything beyond thinking about your health, it's that we need to be together, we need to play, we need community."
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