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Breaking Barriers History: The Colonial Tavern

View of the Colonial Tavern (201 Yonge Street) from across Yonge Street

City of Toronto Archives, Series 377, Item 782

If Dundas Square is the heart of Toronto, then Yonge Street is the artery that pumps blood in it to keep the beat alive. It is easy to see why this neighbourhood is so appealing, especially to Toronto’s diverse youth. The area comprises the newest condominium buildings, the Eaton Centre is within shouting distance, and the location is filled with lively pubs and restaurants.

The lively neighbourhood has changed since the 1940s, but not the atmosphere. Yonge Street was filled with pubs and clubs featuring the hottest names in jazz, blues, rockabilly and rock’n’roll.

Yonge Street used to be Toronto’s musical artery. Pumping talented artists, which helped nurture young talent such as Canada’s own Colin Linden.

201 Yonge Street is now a vacant lot in the heart of the city; however, from 1947 until the late 1986, when it closed down, this lot was the Colonial Tavern.

The Colonial Tavern holds a significant place in Toronto’s history, because it was the first time in Canada that an all-black dancing band was allowed on stage.

“Cy McLean, a pianist, had his own band in Toronto as early as 1937 and led Canada’s only full-scale black orchestra during the Swing Era in the 1940s,” said jazz critic Mark Miller in an article for The Globe and Mail.

The Colonial Tavern also holds a significant place in Canadian music as “one of the most important club to feature live music in Toronto,” said music journalist and historian Nicholas Jennings.

Many local artists have credited the Colonial Tavern as a club that changed their lives for the better, including artists such as guitarist Colin Linden and the leader of blues band Downchild, Donnie Walsh.

According to Jennings, Colin Linden went to the Colonial Tavern with his mother when he was a child and saw Howlin’ Wolf play live. Linden credits the blues legend for shaping him to be the musician he is today. Walsh said that watching Muddy Waters at the Colonial inspired him to start a blues band.

The Colonial Tavern along with the Town Tavern were two of the main jazz venues in Toronto, throughout their heyday, which was the Swing Era.

Legends such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Bob Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins played live in a multitude of bars that have either changed or closed down since. “Miles Davis played there,” said Toronto music promoter Gary Topp.

“The only cats worth anything, are those who take chances.”

In the 1950s, the Colonial Tavern was the heart of an upcoming music fest happening in Toronto. Teenagers and young adults were spending their weekends dancing and drinking listening to the beats of Miles Davis.

“I used to go there all the time as a teenager,” Topp said. “Kids used to go there on Saturdays and sit in the balcony and listen to jazz.”

A patio in front of the Colonial Tavern.
City of Toronto Archives, Series 377, Item 545

There was a great atmosphere at the Colonial, partly because great musicians were playing but also because of how the place was designed. The tables and seats were close to the stage and the balcony offered a special view of the stage. “It was that intimacy and close proximity of the artists that made it so exciting for people,” said Jennings. “It was a music lover haven.”

Topp remembered meeting some of the hottest names in jazz, but one particular pianist impacted his life. “The pianist Thelonious Monk told me ‘the only cats worth anything, are those who take chances,’” said Topp.

But as time passed, the music evolved. Jazz and blues paved the way for rock’n’roll and eventually, punk. “It was the perfect storm, where Toronto was really starting to change culturally,” said director Colin Brunton in an interview with the CBC about his documentary The Last Pogo Jumps Again.

The punk scene in Toronto began in 1976 when the Ramones played their first concert in Canada at The New Yorker on Yonge Street. The scene ended at the The Last Pogo Concert, at the Horseshoe Tavern, in 1978.

By the mid to late 1970s, the Colonial Tavern had started renting their basement, known as the Colonial Underground, to local punk bands such as Teenage Head and Viletones, but it was not enough to save the Colonial Tavern.

In 1986, the club closed for good.

Eventually, the area was purchased to become a hotel, but plans fell through. So, at least for now the lot remains empty of its jubilant stories and stripped of its once glorious past.

 

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