Toronto’s historic Colonial Tavern commemorated for its jazz legacy

The history of Toronto’s famed Colonial Tavern is now embedded in the sidewalk outside the site where it once hosted many of the biggest jazz musicians in history.

A granite disc etched with the names of more than 130 artists who performed at the Colonial Tavern now rests at the open lot at 203 Yonge St., thanks to a recent initiative by the Downtown Yonge BIA in collaboration with MOD Developments.

The Colonial was one of the most famous jazz venues in Canada from the 1950s until it closed in the late ’70s. It was owned and managed by Mike G. Lawrence and his brothers-in-law, Goodwin and Harvey Lichtenberg.

The installation was unveiled on Oct. 29.

The venue hosted jazz legends including Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Carmen McRae, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Cy McLean and Jimmy Smith. By the ’60s the Colonial had also become a home for the blues, hosting performances by Salome Bey, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, T-Bone Walker and many others.

The concerts were often recorded by CJRT’s Ted O’Reilly and broadcast on Saturday mornings alongside interviews with the musicians about their performances.

“The Colonial Tavern was easily one of the most important jazz clubs in North America, and it was certainly the epicentre of jazz in Toronto,” said journalist and music historian Nicholas Jennings. “It was a mecca for jazz. That’s certainly one of its most important roles in Toronto’s history.”

The Colonial also played a significant role in breaking down the “colour barrier” in Toronto’s music scene by welcoming Black artists onto its stage.

The Downtown Yonge BIA produced a mini-documentary to accompany the unveiling of the commemorative marker. The short film includes interviews with Jennings, Jay Douglas, Bonnie Lawrence and Michael Lyons. Watch it below.