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The lights in the living room are all turned up to maximum, combating the dismal greyness of the coastal winter, a perfect opportunity to settle snugly into a comfy LazyBoy rocker, pour myself a glass of red wine – said to be good for the heart and dispensing with doldrums – peruse three years worth of Coda Magazine back-issues dating from the time of my arrival, utilising them as a mnemonic device to ransack my soggy brain, dig out information relating to Toronto’s jazz scene, clarifying partially remembered happenings. John Norris is the editor and principal contributor, reviewing live performance, recordings, articles on obscure artists, news from across Canada. Around the World columns as far flung as Russia, America, Sweden and Britain. What a goldmine of information is discovered on this rainy afternoon. Much of the material, written by amateur critics, tends toward complaining; how the price of beer at one establishment had risen to a dollar, a controversy about Impulse adding a dollar to the price of their stereo records; how the ticket to a Thelonious Monk concert at Massey Hall was the outrageous price of $4.50. All, in retrospect, laughable.

Yonge Street, a provincial version of New York City’s Broadway, was by comparison a paltry parade of bars, shops and cinemas, confined to a strip running from Bloor Street to Queen Street, a distance of more-or-less a mile-and-a-quarter, catering to those seeking relief from the stagnant personality that the city embodied. A short walk from our apartment, east along Elm Street, passing the austere grandeur of buildings that housed Old Angelo’s restaurant, the Arts & Letters Club, Barberians Steak House, an engineering society where an iron ring was required for admission, to be confronted by the vulgar garish glow of giant neon signs, the hubbub of endlessly cruising automobiles, the sidewalk packed with expectant pleasure seekers, was, to say the least, a sensorial shock. So different from the quietude that in general embalmed the city.

Our first taste of Toronto nightlife
is directly across the street. The five feet high illuminated sign announcing “Le Coq D’or” is in the style of an imagined bawdier Paris. Burlesque its purported entertainment. Upstairs is home to Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, an American hillbilly rocker transplanted from Arkansas. It’s said he brought rock ’n’ roll to Canada. The Hawks [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAPkxFfLt20], as Rompin’ Ronnie’s band is known, was a training ground for drummer Levon Helm and guitarist Robbie Robertson, who would go on to form The Band. Next club north, the Edison, promised Dancing Nightly.

Just a two minute stroll north was Club Zanzibar, its facade aglow from top to bottom. A dozen five pointed stars floated up toward a scantily dressed dancing girl complete with top hat. Neon squandered. Saturday afternoon Jam Sessions were a regular event, great fun: cold draft beer, an ashtray on every table and scantily-clad girls gyrating suggestively in cages suspended from the ceiling.

Up at Gerrard the Bermuda Tavern, an establishment that barely stayed outside the law, featured exotic dancers eleven hours a day, six days a week, often accompanied by interesting blues and soul inspired bands. On the corner of Gerrard, Bassel’s, a family restaurant, refused service to the blind pianist George Shearing because the sanitation laws forbade dogs.

Further south on the north-east corner of Dundas Street was the Brown Derby. In my minds eye I still see those gigantic photographs of show bands that lined the length of the tavern’s exterior; the nattily suited bouncers greeting customers entering the dual entrance way – one for men only, the other for ladies with escorts. Every afternoon the entertainment was provided by accordionist Frank Rousseau singing an endless variety of audience requests, popular oldies. When Frank signed off he was replaced by Joe King & the Zaniacs’ outrageous comedic antics. A vague recollection has rhythm and blues bands in this venue.

Homophobia was rampant in Toronto, anything to do with homosexuals considered risqué, even to the point of violence. The St. Charles Tavern, just a few blocks north of the main activity was a strange shaped building with a clock tower identifying its location. A favourite watering hole for the blossoming gay crowd. Straight people, including the police, demonstrated their intolerance at Hallowe’en when the patrons took advantage of the occasion to dress in the most extravagant female attire. After the midnight hour this immediately became an illegal activity and mobs would gather to jeer and harass the partying customers, especially the drag queens, as they exited into the chill night air.

At the most northern part of the strip, a block below Bloor, Jackie Shane [Pictured], a black androgynous soul-singer, held court at the Brass Rail. Jackie’s nightly show, where the persona of Billie Holiday was adopted, complete with white gardenia, was often backed by the marvellous show band of Frank Motley and the Hitchhikers featuring saxophonist King Herbert.[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQ8mfLzgwvI] Jackie’s silky smooth voice and effeminate stage persona commanded overflow crowds. Jackie’s one and only hit record, “Any Other Way” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZnwLamCia4], reached No. 2 in the Canadian hit parade and sustained itself on the charts for 9 consecutive weeks.

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 the pictures then click again to see image full-size.

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