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Jazz safari tracks down for great music in Toronto

TORONTO – Jaymz Bee goes out for a living. Every night. He tries to stay home on Sundays. He rarely succeeds.

“Because there is so much happening,” he said.

As CJRT’s (Jazz FM 91.1) on-air host of “Jazz in the City,” producer, entertainment reporter, and Jazz Safari bwana for Toronto’s Jazz Safari, Bee, by his very nature, is happening.

He was christened James Terrence Shamus O’Malley Lyola Doyle by parents who told him, “We couldn’t decide what to call you, so we gave you all of them.” Jaymz became the name upon moving to Toronto, where he fronted a comedy punk-rock band called the Bee People. The Toronto Star’s Sid Adilman insisted he have a surname, and dubbed him Jaymz Bee. It stuck.

“There’s your man,” said Daniel, a poetry writing regular from a rear table at the Rex, our first safari stop. I suspected as much. Though Jaymz and I had yet to meet, even minus his safari hat – he wears it on international safaris to hot spots like Cuba, and in Toronto when he feels like it – you kind of figured that a guy with a bouncing-off-the-walls vibe, be–bopping to the music and gladly greeting many in his midst, might be Bee.

When entering at 6 p.m. on a Friday to the Hogtown Syncopators sound, the Rex was virtually full, as some nearby downtown offices were emptying out.

Daniel, who has been coming here since the 1980s, said the Rex “feels like an extension of my living room.” With live music seven days a week and traditional pub fare, it also serves as a hangout for University of Toronto music students who come to play, listen and learn, and performers at Toronto’s Jazz Festival, who come to rehearse for the annual event.

Around 7, it was time to board the bus, and Jaymz began rounding up 20 Jazz Safari participants. From downtown, we went to Kingsway, a residential neighborhood and the Old Mill, where in the Home Smith Bar the Shannon Gunn Trio was performing.

The trio already had the audience’s attention when the safari arrived. We seated ourselves on plush couches and chairs surrounding coffee tables. While Gunn sang soulfully, Samantha Brett said she had treated friend Amanda Gardiner to the Jazz Safari as a birthday present. Both were frequent Jazz FM listeners, and while Jaymz recommended Old Mill’s martinis, especially “French martinis,” the ladies opted for espresso ones.

It seemed as though we had just sat down when it was time to go.

“I want to take you to a variety of places,” Jaymz said. “Some where there’s traditional jazz … Latin jazz … one where there’s a vocalist. If I’m doing my job properly, there’ll be one or two places where you’ll come up to me and tell me ‘I don’t want to leave.’ ”

He was right. I didn’t want to leave Old Mill. I could have sat back in Home Smith’s comfort listening to Gunn until dawn.

But safaris, jazz and otherwise, must roll on. This one rolled to Roncesvalles, an old Polish neighborhood in Toronto that is the home of Gate 403.

The Jason Raso Band was playing modern jazz in a performance area carved out among the crowd. And it’s another packed house at Gate 403. I never took a seat here, as even glancing at fleetingly vacated ones elicited “Are you bogarting these seats,” a query I’d never heard before other than in reference to an illegal substance.

“I’m probably the only Chinese person to own a jazz club,” said Jin Ding, 403’s owner, as he showed me a plaque from the Chinese Business Chamber of Canada, bestowed on her and husband Xiaohong Yang as the Most Improved Entrepreneur award for 2012. The Gate features a full menu, and every month new art adorns its walls. Behind the bar, in front windows, and on rear walls are jazz musicians performing in art deco paintings by Gate 403 chef Kunimatsu Daisuki.

“I hope you all brought your passports, ’cause now we leave the mainland,” Havana to Toronto’s Eddie Bullen said as the safari arrived at Dominion On Queen in Corktown, so named most likely due to a wave of 19th century Irish immigrants from County Cork. The Dominion layout, where Havana To Toronto plays first Fridays monthly, is more formal with the stage up front and bar in the back.

“The foundation is jazz,” owner Sean Duranovich said. “But we also have blues, folk and comedy, five to seven days most weeks. And we also have 16 taps for Ontario craft beers.”

He said people came to his club in the early days because they knew the band. Now they come because they know they will hear quality music. As for the safari, he said: “It’s an injection … A ripple effect … It’s great for the live music scene.”

“You get a snapshot of the city,” said Jazz Safari veteran Stephen Drielsma, who was born in Holland and now lives in Toronto. “It’s always something different.

“It’s one of the reasons we go,” agreed Bonni DeFlorio. “You can’t go to four or five spots, arrive right at the beginning of the set.

“You wouldn’t go to them on your own,” she added.

Back downtown, with the night having flown by, the safari was now in the company of Steve Koven. And the keys were in Koven’s capable hands. A composer, performer and educator on York University’s faculty, Koven plays all over Toronto, and the Steve Koven Trio performs the world over, laying claim to being Canadian cultural ambassadors. The Jazz Safari gathered around Pantages Hotel’s Martini Bar for Koven’s spirited piano jazz.

The late Roger Ebert once said “King and Queen streets in Toronto are all by themselves reasons for the city to exist.” Spin on King, a Ping-Pong social club, actress Susan Sarandon’s creative collaboration, gives added reason to draw people onto King Street.

“People find it nostalgic,” one player told me, with owner Ryan Fisher adding “People love that ball boys come around,” scooping up loose balls. People also seem to like the eclectic menu where Spin patrons can find a Spinhattan, and, of course, a new north-of-the-border favorite, Buffalo Tofu, complete with Frank’s Red Hot Sauce.

And for those who go, here’s a tip: I’ve been going to Fran’s Restaturant since the 1970s. The first location I came across is still there, on College Street. There’s now a Fran’s attached to the Pantages Hotel, and also one on Front and Yonge streets. And a slice of Fran’s carrot cake with tea or beverage of your choosing is a perfect way to end your safari, or any type of day spent in Toronto day.

If you go

The Jazz Safari is a fundraising promotion of CJRT (Jazz FM 91.1), a Canadian not-for-profit charitable arts organization, and is available for $500 per couple or $250 per person. For those wishing to stay overnight, a special Jazz Safari rate is available at the Pantages Hotel. To book your stay, call (866) 852-1777.