Dixieland in Toronto: Jazz Fest

Jazz Fest brings to Toronto musicians that cross generations, sounds that cross genres, all in venues across the city. Many of these musicians are local Torontonians that can be found year round playing evening shows in pubs, clubs and bars. Jazz Fest is an invitation to discover, day and night, music new and old.

Jazzfest Toronto

I spent three nights at Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina Avenue this year (amongst other venues), one of Toronto’s best known blues bars. One night, and one band, in particular stood out as one that I must seek out again (and I did, three nights later at The Painted Lady on Ossington Avenue).

Combo Royale bursts out sounds straight from Dixieland. Brass bells and banjo re-imagine beautifully the style of Jazz that began in New Orleans in the early 20th century—right here in Toronto. It is hardly possible to sit still feeling the energy of Combo Royale’s performance. Listening to their stompin’, early style jazz pulls you up to the dance floor to swing right along with it. Both Combo Royale performances I saw during Jazz Fest seemed to spontaneously spark a floor full of swing dancers—very well trained dancers, I might add—an incredible spectacle in and of itself.

Grossman’s Tavern, a spacious dress down, sit down kind of bar; The Painted Lady, a small, look nice, feel nice kind of place—regardless of the venue, Combo Royale offers a night of bouncy jazz, and surprisingly talented swing dancers. Whether you want to go out for a casual drink, or get up and dance to some Dixieland Jazz, Combo Royale will provide the performance.

Combo Royale was a band I just happened upon as I walked into Grossman’s Tavern seeking good music and a good night. Toronto is an incredible city to accidentally discover great music. Especially during Jazz Fest, when the city is bursting with jazz and blues, it is easy to simply pick a venue and venture out for the night, not entirely knowing what to expect.

One night, however, I did plan, and anticipated with a ticket in hand. A Sunday night at The Horseshoe Tavern I had the pleasure to see a performance by the man who, as his band mate introduced him, “is blues harmonica”, James Cotton.

James Cotton Jazzfest Toronto

A friend and I arrived early; there was already nowhere to sit. Along the wall were piles of stools. We placed two on the ground, and sat down a distance away from the stage. The area in front of the stage, where people usually push together as a crowd, was completely empty. I wanted to be close. So my friend and I picked up our stools and sat right in front of center stage—drum kits and guitars, already all set up, reflecting upon their contours the white and blue overhead lights. Up on the stage everything at this point was still. In the dimmed bar behind, people saw us sitting close. Within moments, beer bottles were picked up off of tables, and one by one, previously seated people began picking up their chairs and stools, bringing them forward until we all sat and stood closely together, close to the stage, waiting for The James Cotton Blues Band.

The show began with songs by the three members of his band, each performing a lengthy solo before James Cotton came up on stage. He sat down, harmonica in hand and bellowed the blues through several songs. He stopped to speak to the audience in a raspy voice, telling us, “this city feels like home. And at home we play the blues. So that’s what we’re going to do here tonight, play some blues!”

For one unforgettable evening at Jazz Fest, The Horseshoe Tavern was home to the blues.

**Combo Royale can be found the first Friday of every month at Grossman’s Tavern, and as guests at other venues around the city. Also, check out their website: www.comboroyale.com for music and show listings.