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Yonge Street as Music Mecca

Music fans at Yonge-Dundas Square.

Sam the Record Man.

Sloan performing for CBC Culture Days at Yonge-Dundas Square.

Historic Massey Hall.

Tegan & Sara performing in Yonge-Dundas Square for World Pride 2015.

Sam the Record Man. Friar's Tavern. Le Coq d'Or. A&A Records. Town Tavern. Club Blue Note. Colonial Tavern. These names, and many more, evoke an era when the Yonge Street strip was the pulse of Toronto's music industry. At its peak during the mid-20th century, wandering door-to-door northward from Queen Street exposed club crawlers to the finest in local and international talent onstage in genres ranging from jazz to rock n' roll. That era still grips the city's imagination—witness the campaign a few years ago to preserve Sam's neon spinning records.

The area still contains many options for music lovers. Current performance venues include the intimacy of the Church of the Holy Trinity, the comfortable confines of the Jazz Bistro, the open-air experience of Yonge-Dundas Square, and the venerable Massey Hall. Building on the neighbourhood's musical legacy, the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area (DYBIA) is launching a music strategy initiative to tie past, present, and future together to restore the Yonge strip as the city's "music mecca."

"We've been a little shy as a city at celebrating our past and what a rich spot it was," observes author and historian Nicholas Jennings, whom the DYBIA is consulting on marking the area's musical heritage. "We had all the top names in jazz play on Yonge Street during the 1950s, and that transitioned into blues, rock, and soul through the 60s and 70s." Artists like "King of Yonge Street" Ronnie Hawkins came up from the United States to make their mark here. For African-American musicians, Toronto offered fewer restrictions on accommodations and the venues they could play than they did stateside, resulting for some in long relationships with the city.

Jennings has led a series of historical walking tours of the strip in collaboration with DYBIA and Heritage Toronto. Sessions held so far this year have sold out, reflecting interest from locals and tourists. Plaques are being prepared to mark where venues were located. Among the first honourees will be Friar's Tavern, where Bob Dylan hooked up with the group who became The Band.

Marking the legacy of Friar's, whose site now houses the Hard Rock Café, will also be part of a project both Jennings and DYBIA Executive Director Mark Garner are excited about: a "neon museum." If the required bylaw changes go through, visitors find a curated collection of original and recreated signs from the strip's heyday erected in laneways. The DYBIA has worked with Brothers Markle, which created icons like the Sam's records, to work on the recreations, starting with Friar's Tavern.

Garner sees the neon museum fitting in with the DYBIA's overall strategy to improve the strip's laneways. "Yonge Street can't handle the traffic that's on it today for pedestrians," Garner notes. "There are over 42 million people who walk north and south on Yonge Street, so laneways need to be part of that active pedestrian node. They need to be clean, well-lit, maintained, and programmable."

Among that programming is the DYBIA's Play the Parks concert series. Launched in 2013, the program brings a diverse mixture of performers to five spaces including patios, parkettes, and Mackenzie House museum. Having drawn over 15,000 spectators last year, over 30 performances are scheduled between now and September. The idea, according to Garner, is to "put music in parks, so that people would come out at lunch hours, enjoy music, exercise, get some fresh air, and then go back to the office. They would get to see the music industry and the up-and-coming talent."

To assist emerging talent, there are plans with the City of Toronto for a music incubator in a city-owned building at 38 Dundas Street which previously housed Hakim Optical. Garner sees this site playing a similar role for music professionals as Scarborough-based Coalition Music, with "a whole artist support program where bands, before they go on the road, can go into their facility and hone their chops." Besides musicians, the incubator would also assist industry jobs such as lawyers and promoters.

The DYBIA is also encouraging owners of low-rise buildings to open up their second and third floors as performance spaces. "There seems to be a feeling live music belongs on Yonge Street again," notes Jennings. Garner cites the Aperture Room as a success story. Located above Foot Locker and Salad King in the 1920s-era Thornton-Smith building, the space has partnered with Oliver & Bonacini as its catering provider.

Garner hopes that as more potential partner come out of the woodwork, the DYBIA's music strategy could provide a template for BIAs in other musically-rich sections of the city to emulate. The strategy also plays into overall efforts to revitalize Yonge Street, which will be reviewed by Toronto and East York Community Council later this month.

"When I go to London, I go to the places Jim Hendrix wrote songs," Garner notes. "We have that great legacy, and we're at a moment in time to capture that stuff in Toronto."
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