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Forty years had passed
since the roaring twenties, when Satchmo produced endless variations on a single melody, shaping jazz forever; when Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby hosted lavish soirées at his enormous mansion on the banks of Long Island Sound; when prohibition enhanced the fortunes of the Seagram family and their ilk; when Jewish gangsters with such exotic names as Bugsy Spiegel and Meyer Lansky ruled the roost, but in my somewhat naive brain the Town Tavern, just around the corner on Queen Street East, still held this mystique.

Perhaps it was the very look of the place, the bored hat-check girl ensconced in her lobby vestibule painting her nails, or the layout of the club with its long low-ceilinged dark room divided in half by a bar running the entire length. The lounge on one side accommodating the dedicated aficionados who for the price of a 45¢ beer could while away an hour, and on the other the dining room. The stage was plonked in the middle, a view of the musicians available to both classes of patrons. At the far end of the bar, an “L” shaped dark corner, was a gathering place for a regular set, who with their tarted-up molls exuded an aura of illicit menace. What would nowadays be referred to as “the usual suspects”. Confirmed once by a shooting in the lobby, when one of the “ladies” produced a Derringer from her purse, possibly seeking revenge for an indiscretion. Among this regular crowd, attracted by jazz — or so it would seem — could be found Big Moe, always willing to place your wager on the 3:30 at the Woodbine Racetrack; or Horse who could acquire for minimal cost, a television set or a refrigerator that had fallen off the back of a truck. And then there were the giants; Whipper Billy Watson, Yukon Eric, Bulldog Brower, Tiger Jeet Singh and Sweet Daddy Siki, the ring names of Toronto’s famous wrestlers. Sweet Daddy Siki, the most colourful of these characters was a black man, a startling enough physical visage that was exaggerated by his mop of bleached white hair. Mr. Irresistible, as he was fondly known, was a main card attraction at Maple Leaf Gardens and drew fans by the busload.

Commandeering one of the chromium plated swivelling stools that ran the length of the bar provided a perfect location from which to take photographs of the musicians. To deal with the low-light conditions that the coloured spotlights created I’d developed a technique to stabilise my rather clumsy Ricohflex with a miniature tripod that could be rested on the bar top, allowing me to shoot pictures with the aperture set wide open at 3.5 at the very slow speed of 1/8 of a second. A great deal of patience was required, waiting for the artist, on this occasion guitarist Wes Montgomery [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mXJv3-CCFM], to settle into a certain stillness, a position when the feeble lighting was the most advantageous. Seated next to me was a chatty bothersome drunk, already three sheets to the wind, who kept interfering with my concentration, continuously banging against my arm. In short a bloody annoyance. I had tried several times to ask him to desist, to no avail, when from behind us came a gentle quiet voice requesting the drunk to leave me be. “Can’t you see the man is working?” The drunk, empowered by dutch courage, leaped to his feet and turned to deal with the intruder, only to be confronted by the scary, imposing personage of Sweet Daddy Siki. He immediately changed his mind and slunk unsteadily from the club.

They were nothing to do with us, these dudes in their flashy stylised clothes hanging at the end of the bar, the only contact a nod in passing as we made our way to the toilets, but somehow there was no doubt as to the power they held, that this bar was their turf. They were friendly enough, often buying a drink for one of their favourite players, assisting the staff in some way or another, and on the Friday night of March 29th, 1966 used their influence to persuade the duelling saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y99XAif1Wp0], the stars appearing that week, to stop so we could all crowd around the radio and listen to the fifteen round World Heavyweight title fight between our local working class hero George “Boom Boom” Chuvalo and the champion Cassius Clay. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtCOdFGLoFY]

End Notes:
The photographs – found on the web – are from various Toronto newspapers. Used without permission.

The Coda Magazine cover is from the author’s personal collection.
The material for this series of stories was culled from Chapter 26 of “Rant & Dawdle – A Fictional Memoir”.
Click on the pictures then click again to see image full-size.
Comments are welcome: classicimprov@yahoo.

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