Late Nights at The Rex: Musings About a Unique Toronto Venue
As far as mottos go, The Rex Hotel Jazz and Blues Bar prefers to keep it simple. “More Great Jazz than anywhere else, all the time!” is their commitment. They honour it very well, and especially now as we return to a world of late-night drinks and live jazz. Having just reopened, The Rex has caught the attention of many a music lover yearning for a night of musical whimsy. And they’ve prepared well for it, too: the unmistakable venue has invested in all the modern equipment necessary. Their stage boasts floor-to-ceiling glass walls to ensure a barrier between musician and audience, and they are certainly taking full advantage of the outdoor patio craze of summer 2021.
On Monday, July 26, the Keith Barstow group kicked off the week with some smooth live tunes. With Keith on the drums, Ian on the horns, and David on the bass, they were the quintessential jazz trio, perfect to sip summer cocktails along to. They met at U of T and have been making music together ever since. All three seemed thrilled to finally be back in the music scene, and their fervour was clear in their performance. In fact, I daresay their stage presence as group easily made up for the plastic barriers separating them from the audience. They have little social media presence and tend not to advertise much, claiming they really do it for the love of music. This love of music may be all the advertising they need, because we sincerely recommend you go check out the Keith Barstow group next time they play The Rex.
The live music venue is known for its retro-chic décor, and of course, the infamous and by-now-beloved pillar in the middle of the dining area. It’s this unique modern-yet-historical charm that makes it so distinct – and so popular as a late-night hangout spot. For many years it’s been a central venue for the TD jazz festival. Why wouldn’t it be, given that it’s such a household name? Believe it or not, though, The Rex started out from seriously humble roots.
In 1960, Bob Ross bought out the cute but unremarkable United Clothing Store and converted it into an expanded bar, which quickly attracted an audience. Around 20 years later, as Queen Street West became increasingly hip, Ross realized that he had better keep up with the times if he wanted to boast a poppin’ venue for local clientele. Initially he hosted mainly pro-alt-country and rockabilly music, genres that are scarcely recognizable today. But all that was soon to change.
In the early days of the venue, Bob Ross would shut down early, go to the nearby jazz bar Bourbon Street & Basement Street, and chillax with the musicians till the early hours of the night. Eventually they started showing up at the Rex between sets – mostly for the bargain drinks. So it was a combination of sociability and business savvy (read: cheap beer) that lay down the roots of The Rex as we know it today.
One seemingly ordinary night, Canadian saxophonist DT Thompson was playing down the street. After a set, the jazz musician strutted in casually, playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” while prancing around the bar. Eventually he found his way to the bar, and requested a rye and coke for his impromptu entertainment. Ross was seemingly more amused than anything, because from that day forward the venue has been known predominantly for its jazz and blues shows.
The bar has been renovated many times over the years, but none of the changes have modernized it so much as to take away its characteristic and unmistakable Old Toronto feel. The bar is still owned by Bob Ross, and now he has his grandson Avi around to manage it with him. Tom Tytel took over booking in the 90s, and he’s been the go-to guy ever since. The Rex may be a bar, but it seems to be equal parts a family.