By Mitchell Fox
Fabian Nuñez Ramos looked out into the crowd in front of him, seeing nothing. He was not looking at the sheet of paper on the stand. Nor the lights shining down on him. Nor the many eyes staring his way. Beyond it all, the 20-year-old jazz student was looking into a blur. It was all just background, which he compares to the subtle foundation blues of a Bob Ross painting.
He was in the place every jazz player covets: the flow state.
He moved with the music. His saxophone aligned with his nods to keep the time, his hair bouncing as his fingers played the notes he knew so well.
Nuñez Ramos was having fun – everyone in the room could tell. Despite playing at one of Toronto’s most renowned venues, he was comfortable, ready to create a meaningful jazz experience for everyone in that vibrant Toronto bar that snowy February night.
It was not his first time, and probably not his last, but he was catching a glimpse of the life waiting for him beyond his degree.
Nuñez Ramos and his bandmates are among 90 undergraduate and 20 graduate students who, as part of their education, get the opportunity to showcase their talent at 5:30 p.m. on the stage at The Rex Hotel Jazz and Blues Bar each Monday evening.
Here, University of Toronto (UoT) jazz studies students can hone their craft in a way many students do not. They take their first step into the spotlight, catching, through the dim bar lights and murmuring voices, what may be ahead of them.
The nice part is usually the end product is ‘holy crap.’ These kids are very good at what they do
Students from the program have had that opportunity for 35 years, only a decade less than owner Bob Ross has run The Rex, with his son Avi having taken over some duties recently. Another longtimer, music manager Tom Tytel, has been coordinating performances at The Rex for over 30 years. Setting up microphones and even serving food, Tytel can be seen running around the packed bar every night. However chaotic it gets, he and Ross come back to the same line: “Beat’s working, though.”
He says credit for that goes to the performers.
“We open the door, we turn the lights on, we make the stage available. It’s up to them to then shine,” Tytel said.
The Rex may not be the largest music venue in the city, but if you ask UoT jazz area head Jim Lewis, it is “the real deal.” It has everything – from the small stage tucked in the corner to the sleek wooden bar to the Louis Armstrong poster and pictures of past performers covering the walls.
“How can you get more experiential than playing a professional gig in the club where your faculty members, professionals from out of town, people from New York, everybody who plays in Toronto [play]? You’re right in the middle of where it happens,” Lewis said.
Not only is The Rex the middle of Toronto’s jazz scene, it is the premier location for those in the early stages of a musical pursuit. Tytel says there needs to be a professional stage that is also a community stage, so the 30-year trend of hosting UoT student ensembles continues.
“It’s part of what we do here, making sure that there’s time for the past Juno winner, Grammy winner, international touring artists, all the way to [students],” he said.
The show is not only for locals or parents. Some will come from afar, taking in the allure of the bar and its performers.
Ann and Al Coughlin, a retired couple from Waterloo, Ont., say when they are in Toronto, they come to The Rex for their jazz fix – on this night, specifically to see the students. “It’s the experience, the exposure and the connections you make… that’s something I really like here is that they still encourage new performers.”
Giving these opportunities to the next generation is important to what Tytel wants to achieve. Student performances may not bring in the same “cold hard dollars,” he says, but there is room for more artistic shows.
“If it’s a full house but the show sucks, that’s not a win. I’ll tell you what is a win. If there are 20 people – which is not good – but it’s a fucking amazing show,” he says.
Though Monday nights used to be considered a slow night, Tytel notes, it is now one of their strongest early shows.
“If it wasn’t such a solid show every Monday, I don’t think we could keep filling it up,” Tytel said. “The nice part is usually the end product is ‘holy crap.’ These kids are very good at what they do.”Getting that reaction requires the preparation, confidence and cohesion needed to perform well – no easy feat. For UoT students, this means hard hours in the classroom and the quaint practice rooms of the jazz building. Nuñez Ramos emphasizes the sense of safety in those spaces. Students bring their own compositions, improvise and give each other feedback. The Rex is different, but the camaraderie appears there too. They gather in one corner of the bar to, as Nuñez Ramos puts it, “nerd out” about their performances. “I love what you did on that solo” and “That piece is amazing!” break out through an excited chatter as they put their instruments away.
I’m not in school anymore. I’m standing in the jazz club playing.
Students do not have to look far to see where those performances at The Rex can lead.
Husband-wife duo William Carn and Tara Davidson are former UoT jazz students who now teach in the program. Having once played at The Rex in student bands, the 2020 JUNO Award for Jazz Album of the Year winners now go to watch their students play or perform professionally with the Carn Davidson 9 and Ernesto Cervini’s Turboprop.
Carn and Davidson have felt the pressure of performing at the award-winning jazz bar, having played hundreds of shows there. Davidson says The Rex holds a special place in her heart – her family even held a memorial service for her father there in 2015.
Carn barely remembers his first performance at The Rex. There were maybe 10 people in the audience, but the nerves were undeniable. It hit him: “I’m not in school anymore. I’m standing in the jazz club playing.”
Even Nuñez Ramos, who plays at other Toronto venues such as Jazz Bistro and The Emmet Ray Whisky Jazz Bar, acknowledges the nerves of that first Rex performance. He remembers the audience was noticeable then, like a scenery instead of a background.
“At The Rex you feel a little more exposed,” Nuñez Ramos said.
“Beat’s working, though”
Tytel says students should know what they are getting into.
“Look at that name on the stage. Look who’s been here, look at the listing, who was here the night before. That’s the microphone you’re playing into,” he says to the proverbial first-time student on the stage. “That should be a pucker-up moment for people and that’s good. It’s not bullying, it’s opening their eyes.”
Once those eyes are opened, the horizon widens. Tytel has seen musicians cross his stage and move onto impressive careers, Carn and Davidson among them.
“The people when I started here, who were in college, who were those awkward kids just coming out and getting their chance for the first time on stage, are now the stalwarts of the jazz scene,” he says with a smile.
Tytel describes what happens when there is a problem at the bar, like a water main issue. He and Ross complain to each other over the phone, taking out their frustrations. Then, as Tytel looks around him, hearing the sophisticated yet vibrant music that fills his workplace, the men break a moment of silence: “Beat’s working, though.”
“I come into work every day, open the door [to] people [who] are coming to have a good time to listen to great music. I can think of worse things in the world,” he added.
Nuñez Ramos says he feels very fortunate to have the opportunity to perform and learn on and off the Rex stage. The initial nerves have turned to excitement, as now whenever he watches his classmates perform, he looks forward to the next time that will be him.
The next time he sets foot on that stage, he might take another step into his future. One where his saxophone, in lockstep with the rhythms and melodies of other instruments around him, sings the song he imagines beyond the blur of the crowd.\