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Sybil Walker: Toronto Jazz Presenter, Club Manager, and Supporter

Latest installment of the In Service of Jazz series of conversations with people behind the scenes in the jazz community

Sybil Walker
Sybil Walker

I reached across the northern border to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, for my latest subject of the “In Service of Jazz” series of interviews: Sybil Walker, presenter, jazz club manager, lifelong fan and friend to the international jazz music community. I first met her in the early ’80s—before she became the founding manager of the world-class Top of the Senator and later manager of the Jazz Bistro in the same footprint, as well as musical director for JVC Toronto—and worked with her many times over the years. Through it all she earned her much-deserved reputation for being the rare presenter/club manager who truly loves the music, takes care of business thoroughly and efficiently, and treats artists with respect. That’s a lot—and hard to do! A real powerhouse with a shockingly endless supply of energy, Sybil was able to slow down and talk to me in this time of COVID when indoor live music was still not permitted in Toronto. (That doesn’t mean she’s doing nothing; she still has her finger in a lot of jazz pies.) 

Sybil Walker: I came to jazz actually through the restaurant business. I was managing Joe Allen’s in Toronto, the sister restaurant to the Joe Allen’s in New York where all the theater people go. I did that about 10 years. And in between the restaurant and where I lived was Bourbon Street, Toronto’s main jazz club at the time, where they brought people from New York and everywhere else up to play. So I would stop in there to have an after-work drink at the bar and listen to some music before going home. And I got really involved with the music that was happening there and in being there night after night to hear great jazz.  

Bourbon Street, and its upstairs smaller room Basin Street, usually brought up people to play with our local musicians, that was their thing. I saw Bill Evans there, Maxine Sullivan, all kinds of great jazz artists … Scott Hamilton, Warren Vache … [Author’s note: That’s where I met my husband Peter Leitch, who was playing guitar with Kenny Wheeler at Bourbon Street in 1980.] But those clubs were on their way out by the mid-’80s. I don’t remember exactly when they closed.

After I left Joe Allen’s I thought I would take some time off. I had worked a long time without any kind of holiday or break! I used to hang out at Sam the Record Man, a very big record store in Toronto, just nosing around the jazz department. A wonderful old gentleman by the name of Gunther ran it for years and he knew every jazz record in the store: the catalog numbers, who was on them, everything. He was a marvel. When I went there, we often talked. “What are you doing now?” he asked one day. “Nothing,” I said. “Well,” he said, “Bobby is trying to open a jazz club.” Bob Sniderman was the son of the man who owned the record store, Sam Sniderman.

“Well, that interesting,” I said. I knew Bob Sniderman from the restaurant business. He had a small restaurant, and I knew he had just opened a steakhouse. We had been friendly, business acquaintances really. But I thought I would walk over to the new steakhouse, it was nearby. He just happened to be standing in front.

I said, “Bob, I haven’t seen you in ages—I hear you’re opening a jazz club!” He said, “Well, I thought I might open it upstairs from the steakhouse.”

“Hmmm, that’s interesting,” I said. “I love jazz and I’m not doing anything right now, so if you need any help along the way, just give me a call.”

He said, “Would you like to run it?” “Yes, I would,” I said. And that was the job interview. It was about a minute long.

That was 1989 and it was just a wonderful ride. It was the best time ever for Toronto and jazz. I say that selfishly—there must have been times before that—but there hasn’t been a time like that since that was as heavy for great music. A fairly large club called the Bermuda Onion had opened, as well as a smaller room, the Montreal Bistro, that was presenting great smaller groups, and us. All of a sudden there were three major jazz clubs in Toronto, where a year earlier there had been one.

But we filled a need. The Top of the Senator was a real international jazz club and there had been a gap in Toronto for that kind of music.

Trial by Fire

It was a bit nervewracking at first. We opened up in June with Betty Carter. Talk about initiation under fire. On a lot of levels. She came with her whole band: Marc Cary, Dwayne Burno, and Gregory Hutchinson. I don’t know what we thought. I guess I just thought it was going to be like a night at Bourbon Street. But NO! We opened the doors and there was a line around the block—and it never stopped. All week it was jam-packed. It was just at the beginning of the Toronto Jazz Festival too. There were lots of international musicians coming in for a beer and to see the group. It was starting at the very pinnacle of what we wanted to achieve. It was kind of an impetus to keep it going at that level. We realized how great it could be. And after that was Dewey Redman, I remember, wonderful as well.

I think because of the Bermuda Onion we couldn’t slow down! They were bigger than us, they had more seats and so had more buying power and were booking some major bands. The agents were aware that there were two jazz clubs in Toronto that were booking major talent, and they just kept us inundated with calls. It wasn’t really out of control, but I kind of felt that way at the beginning, I don’t believe we understood that it was going to be like that. We thought, “Oh, we’ll have this nice little club and we’ll have some people in,” but we started out at an amazing clip.

Flying by the Seat of Her Pants

I knew nothing! I didn’t know how to do an immigration paper, a work permit, contracts, paying in U.S. dollars, it was just crazy—real learning on the job. I have to say, I was not ready for the New York agents at that time. They just had me dancing. It was great, though, a lot of fun, but boy, was it a lot of work! I was kind of a one-man band, booking the music, doing the contracts, running to the airport to pick people up, renting equipment if we needed it, that was all happening during the day and then I was working in the club at night. I couldn’t do it now at that energy level but it was just fabulous while it was happening. Budgets, everything. I was a bit naïve, thinking I could handle all of that, yet somehow you eventually do. But I did have to sit back every once in a while and just give myself a shake, because I had these amazing artists: Hank Jones in one week and Randy Weston in another, and Stanley Turrentine in another.

Weeklong Gigs and Free Hotel Rooms

We did six days [for each act booked], and that was unusual. A lot of clubs didn’t do six days, and the musicians loved it. They would love to come up, I had quintets and sextets—Bobby Watson and Horizon came up, those groups.

I don’t know honestly how we did this, but we ended up getting free hotel rooms for about four years, totally free hotel rooms. We just went to them and said, “We’ll give you all kinds of free advertising and the musicians will stay here and everyone will know these great musicians are staying at your hotel.” I don’t know, they went for it—I would have five hotel rooms for six nights for free. That was amazing. After that went away, it was much more difficult, of course. I can’t even imagine now, with the price of hotel rooms, how clubs do it.

Senators at the Senator

One funny story: There was a hotel we used at the beginning, the Chelsea Inn, a Canadian line of hotels. And somehow in the translation from us phoning and making a deal with the sales department and then that information getting to the booking department of the hotel, and me booking musicians in, somehow they thought that the musicians coming in were all U.S. Senators … honest to God. I remember Dewey Redman coming in and saying, “Wow, those are really nice rooms I’ve got at the hotel.” I said, “Rooms?”

Then they sent the invoice. It was a blank invoice with a $0 total, but they still sent it, and it said, “Senator Redman.” They thought all the musicians coming in were senators, so they gave them these suites, with kitchens and living rooms … It was amazing. Penthouse suites.

Another funny story was when I brought Tom Harrell to the hotel. It was a difficult time, the flight was late leaving New York, and there was some hang-up here in Toronto; I was at the airport almost two hours waiting for him and to get him through immigration. He was pretty agitated by the time he got through, and who can blame him? I took him to the hotel. I started wandering around his suite to make sure he was comfortable there. There was a kitchen and a dining room, and a living room, and another bedroom—it was huge. When Tom came out of the bedroom I said, “Tom, do you realize there is a whole suite of rooms here—another bedroom, a living room…?” He said, “Those must be for my other personality!” He really said that. He had such a great view of his illness. [Author’s note: Tom is completely upfront about his schizophrenia, and he manages it as well as it can be managed.]

Everybody Pitched In

Another thing that made it possible to run the Senator the way I did, and that would make it impossible today, is that it was a really strong cooperative effort between the record companies, the record stores (there were two major record stores downtown—A&A and Sam the Record Man), the Now magazine (Toronto’s version of The Village Voice at the time), and the major dailies. The record companies would pay for advertising, the record stores would do an in-store promotion with the musicians on maybe a Wednesday afternoon, and there were three major reviewers for jazz in this city: one for The Globe and Mail, one for the Toronto Star, and one for Now. What other jazz club gets two major reviews every week for their artists? We were constantly in the entertainment section of the newspapers. The record companies would pay for advertising—you know, you try to book people who have new product coming out—so you just had all these people working for you in a very nice way, in a very cooperative way, just to make something great happen.

None of that exists now. There are no record stores in Toronto—just used record stores. It makes a huge difference. And we used to have equipment rental—that’s another thing, music stores like Steve’s and Long & McQuade would give us equipment and we would let their salesmen into the club to hear the music on a Tuesday or a Wednesday. Save a table, reciprocal back and forth. It just doesn’t happen like that now.

A Labor of Love and Respect

It is and was a labor of love. I think it’s really important that the musicians are treated with the respect that they deserve. It’s not easy putting yourself up there every night, and it is very important to make them feel as special as they are. You know, it’s tough, it’s tough. But for us who work with them, it’s amazing! During the festival season one year, we had Roy Hargrove for three days, Kenny Garrett for three days, and Mulgrew Miller for three days. I just about lost my mind. We danced so much my legs were just about aching in the morning. We were just flying around the room.

There were nights that were so special. People always ask, “What were your favorites?” and you think, “That’s impossible to say. You can’t do that.” But one that really blew my mind—we did Joe Pass as a solo act for six nights. He just sat in the middle of that stage and literally—it was like magic. It was just … I almost can’t believe that it happened. I mean, I booked it. But it was that magical. He passed away shortly after that. I believe he had cancer. I wondered if he knew. Of course, on some level he knew. It was a lifetime of music in six days. Just so special. You know instantly when you have those special nights and those special times. There is just something otherworldly about them. And we had lots of great people there: Shirley Horn, Stanley Turrentine, Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, the list goes on. Mose Allison was another one that was very special for me. I’m a real Mose Allison fan.

I am so fortunate to have lived that. It was never anything I thought I would do. If someone said when I was 20 years old, “You’re going to run a jazz club for 17 years, you’re going to have the best jazz musicians in the world play there,” I would have laughed uproariously. It just never crossed my mind that I would ever do anything like that.

Encouraging Jazz Students

We encouraged students to come in to hear these older musicians. To hear them live, there is really nothing like that experience. We had half-price tickets for students on Wednesdays and some other kinds of promotion for them.

Top of the Senator was a long and narrow room. The first time we had Ray Brown there, he brought Benny Green on piano and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. It was student night, maybe the second night he was there, and I had gone to the back of the room and come back in, and the set had ended.  The students were lined up to meet Ray! It looked like a wedding reception line, right down the center of the room to the stage, with these young students, and Ray never got off the stage. He just sat on the piano bench and he shook hands with each one of these students. It was so heartwarming.

Closing Time

Bob Sniderman, who was and is still a dear friend, sold the building and the Top of the Senator closed after 17 years. It’s a long, long story. The steakhouse downstairs, the jazz club upstairs, and the theater across the street were tied to one another for business. The Phantom of the Opera had been playing at that theater for 12 years and we relied on the people coming downtown for that. All of a sudden the theater went broke and closed and there was nothing there! The area emptied out at night. So you had this huge steakhouse and a fairly large jazz club and no business.

A lot of people couldn’t believe it—particularly Europeans. They would come in toward the end and say, “If this were Europe, you wouldn’t be allowed to close this club after almost 20 years. The government would come in and ask, ‘What do you need to keep this going? What can we do?’ There would be government support because they would recognize the club as a huge cultural icon.” But not here, not in Canada. So the Top of the Senator closed.

I continued to work with Bob over the years—opened a restaurant in the Caribbean with him, and managed this organic produce farm that he started outside of Toronto. Not as far-fetched as you might think; I grew up on a farm in Western Ontario, in Prince Edward County. So I got up at three in the morning to be at the farm by 4:30 a.m. And I did that for two years. It was fun—going to farmers’ markets, learning about succession planting, that sort of thing! It was a sharp learning curve—but up here you’ve got all winter to read up on what you need to know.

Jazz Bistro

I helped a few places out that wanted to book jazz for a couple nights a week, and there were other jazz-related events. I had been the artistic director for JVC Toronto from 1996 to 1999 too, and later booked small festivals and so on. I continued to be involved.

Eventually the new owners of the place that was the Top of the Senator wanted me to come back in and manage it as a jazz club. It was the same footprint as the Top of the Senator, but It had been completely redesigned. I did, and I was able to work with them for six or seven years.

The Jazz Bistro was a little more formal-looking room, more like a dining room than a jazz club. Maybe people felt like they had to be on their best behavior going in there. But whatever it was, it didn’t have the same feeling as the Senator. Young people, students almost never came in, and I never really got to the bottom of it. I guess they just didn’t feel comfortable. It’s too bad, it is a great opportunity for them to meet these older musicians, challenge themselves.

At the Jazz Bistro I would have some of our local bands—Toronto has great musicians—and then once a month or so I could bring in people from the States or elsewhere. It was not easy. It’s really hotels and flights that kill you.

Making It Work

But we still had some great bands and some wonderful nights. When Sheila Jordan would come in, it was like that. Nights where there is magic and the people in the club know it—they are pin-drop quiet. They just know they’re hearing something special. Audiences revered Sheila. I loved bringing her up, and Freddy Cole, Carol Sloane, Lew Tabackin several times—he’s a lovely man, so special.

I tried to do some different things. In 2019 I brought up a young saxophonist, Irwin Hall, and since I couldn’t afford his trio, I thought about who I would pair him with. Rather than our seasoned top players like Bernie Senensky and Neil Swainson, I decided to give some of our younger players [bassist Ben Dwyer—Phil’s son—pianist Ewan Farncombe, and drummer Davide Corazza] a chance. Well, they really appreciated it. They came in at noon on the first day of the gig and worked on the music all day. He was great with them. Every set, every night, was a lesson for them, one they got paid to do, and they really stepped up to the plate. They played beautifully and understood that this experience was special and important—a chance to play with someone at a very high level in a public setting. I was proud of them. Later I did a live recording of this group and gave the master to Irwin.

Another thing I liked to do, and that was unique, was our Christmas program. Every year, the Saturday before Christmas I would bring in two pianos, and it got to be a thing in Toronto. I would plan this months in advance! People knew that if they came out and had dinner, they would hear something absolutely exquisite that they would never hear at any other time.

One year, we had the wonderful Cuban pianist Hilario Duran and the great Hungarian pianist Robi Botos. For this event, I would ask the pianists to play something traditional for Christmas from their own countries, something that we would not necessarily associate with Christmas in our country, in Canada. They would follow that with a traditional Christmas song that we all knew, and then the jazz set. This time the selections were particularly moving. People were weeping, the music was so beautiful.

We did well with the people who I brought in, but I wished that we could have had more success with the wonderful local artists that we had at the Jazz Bistro. I would tell people, “You have to come out and support these local musicians. There is some great music happening here.”

But I understand that New York is the gold standard. Not everyone can go to New York to hear music, and it is a real treat to have these bands that you’ve heard of or that you’ve only heard on record come up so you can hear them live. There’s nothing like it.

I know I’ve been lucky to have had so many years with the very best jazz music in the world! One funny story: On this second go-around of this club, the Jazz Bistro, I was finding it difficult for a number of reasons—the way the room had been done up was only part of it. The times had changed; no advertising, no [hotel] rooms, no reviewers, no record companies. I was in New York and I like to come to the 92nd Street Y jazz series that Bill Charlap curates [there]. I was talking to Peter Washington, and I was kind of complaining, not really complaining, just venting, “It’s this, it’s that, it’s not this, it’s not that,” and he just put his hands on my shoulders and he said, “Sybil, most people never get to do what you did once. And you’re getting to do it twice!” And I thought, very wise. Shut up and enjoy it. Even though it’s not the same. It’s still wonderful to work with musicians, you know.

I look forward to the pandemic being over. We’ve been closed for 375 days and counting. I’m working with my friend Bob Sniderman again at his diner, the Senator, the oldest restaurant in Toronto, and am booking a few small things. There’s a little festival here, the Kensington Market Festival that Molly Johnson runs, and Celine Peterson, Oscar’s daughter and a dear friend of mine, is involved too, so I help out with that. And I work with a little group—Jazz in Toronto—helping to book and promote it. You do what you can do! Originally Published