The Artists’ Jazz Band reflected the dynamic arts scene of Toronto in the 1960s. Created by a collective of famous painters who experimented in free jazz, the Artists’ Jazz Band is a case study in how the city went from “Toronto the Good” to “Toronto the Cool.”
This story was researched and written by Emerging Historian Kyle Resendes (2023) and made possible by the generous support of our Tours Program Presenting Sponsor, TD Bank and The Ready Commitment.
Last updated: November 9, 2023
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The Artists’ Jazz Band (AJB) was formed in 1962 by a group of Toronto abstract expressionist painters who shared an interest in improvised music. Its founding members included Gordon Rayner, Robert Markle, and Graham Coughtry. Most members were self-taught musicians which marked their interest in jazz as an abstract art form, rather than a display of virtuosity. Choosing to perform in private lofts and select art galleries throughout downtown Toronto, the AJB were a close-knit group at the heart of the Toronto artistic community.
The dynamic interplay between self-taught and experienced musicians placed the AJB on the border between an amateur jam band and an innovative jazz collective. Although the band’s work is known today by a select group of jazz musicians and abstract art enthusiasts, their work serves as a lens into the free-expression attitude of the 1960s.
Heidi Savoie, Jazz Pianist
Interview, September 2023
In the mid-20th century, Toronto’s jazz scene represented a combination of swing, bebop, and dixieland styles. In focusing on free jazz, the AJB were oppositional to most of Toronto’s jazz scene. However, their work was inspired by a legacy of Toronto abstract artists and jazz musicians who focused on free improvisation.
The AJB was also remarkable in its ability to attract notable Toronto artists; its membership was a revolving door of Toronto artists, including David Lee, Stuart Broomer, Bill Smith, and Michael Snow. Snow was a pioneer of abstract art and is often remembered for his public works such as Walking Woman (1961), Flight Stop (1971), and The Audience (1989). But Snow was also an accomplished jazz pianist who contributed his talents to the AJB.
Andrew Marzotto, Jazz Guitarist, talking about the AJB
Interview, September 2023
During the 1960s, Toronto became a thriving cosmopolitan city. Bob Dylan discovered The Band on Yonge Street while Joni Mitchell performed a few blocks north at Steele’s Tavern. Toronto was becoming an artistic hotspot. Until then, Toronto was known as a polite and mild-mannered city known as “Toronto the Good”. However, the Artists’ Jazz Band were an example of the 1960s cultural revolution that redefined the city as “Toronto the Cool.”
The band exclusively played in private sessions or within local art spaces such as the Isaacs Gallery (832 Yonge Street) and A Space Gallery (85 St. Nicholas Street). According to Bill Smith, the band also occasionally played in drummer Gordon Rayner’s loft at College and Spadina. Rayner’s loft functioned primarily as an art studio, but the band would join him there for weekly sessions after visiting local pubs such as Grossman’s Tavern, playing late into the night. These private jam sessions could include improvised music, poetry, dixieland jazz numbers and everything in between.
Journalist Peter Goddard has described the ‘sheer bravado’ of experimental groups like the Artists’ Jazz Band as part of the “Toronto Swagger.” According to Goddard and others, Toronto’s artistic culture was more experimental than that of New York or Paris. Playing with the AJB meant you were part of an exclusive group of high-profile painters who performed outside the mainstream.
This film focuses on Gordon Rayner as a working Toronto artist and member of the Artists’ Jazz Band. Skip to 37 minutes to watch the Artists’ Jazz Band play in Rayner’s private studio.
Graham Coughtry, Artists' Jazz Band member
Toronto Star, 4 March 1967
Tom King, Jazz Pianist
Interview, September 2023
The origins of jazz often is traced to African-American musicians playing in the United States in the mid-19th century. In the Canadian sphere, legendary musicians such as Eleanor Collins, Salome Bey, and Oscar Peterson made significant contributions to jazz, and represented Canada’s jazz scene on the international stage in the early to mid-twentieth century.
It is important to acknowledge the Artists’ Jazz Band was not a diverse band; however, its members often acknowledged the important legacy of Black jazz musicians. For Bill Smith in particular, the groundbreaking music of alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) as well as tenor and soprano saxophonist Albert Ayler (1936-1970) inspired the AJB to explore the limits of free jazz as a musical genre.
The Artists’ Jazz band were not the inventors nor pioneers of free improvisation, yet they performed as allies to historically Black music, during a time of increased diversity in Toronto.
John Testar, Jazz Guitarist
Interview, September 2023
Unlike the jazz styles seen in the work of Ella Fitzgerald or Miles Davis, which requires an extensive background in theory and technique, improvisational music calls for an immediate outward expression of musicians. According to AJB member Nobuo Kubota, “We couldn’t have read a note of music to save our lives.” In this sense, it’s best to see the AJB not as a traditional band, but instead as a group of abstract visual artists who occasionally traded their brushes for instruments.
The AJB was unique in their ability to weave visual art references and musical cues in their performances. According to AJB member David Lee, Toronto’s Painters Eleven laid the groundwork for modern expressionist art in Toronto. Formed in the early 1950s, the group was among the first to break the mold of Toronto’s then-conservative art world. Many in the artistic circle went on to directly mentor AJB members in abstract art and, indirectly, free jazz. Trading music theory for artistic expression, the AJB challenged listeners to link their music with the broader abstract art movement in Toronto.
According to Toronto musicologist Mike Daley, AJB shows were more performance art than musical entertainment. The AJB performed in downtown art galleries such as Isaacs Art Gallery, The Music Gallery, and A Space Gallery, spaces that also had encouraged the modernist and abstract artistic movements in Toronto. Musicologists agree these were the only places where improvisational groups such as the AJB could perform, playing for audiences interested in their unique performative art style.
This film features the Artists’ Jazz Band performing at Art’s Sake. Skip to 29 minutes to watch a rare recording of their performance.
David Lee, member of the Artists' Jazz Band
"'We Can Draw!': Toronto Improvisation, Abstract Expressionism, and the Artists’ Jazz Band" Vol. 11 No. 1-2 (2016): Improvisation and Global Sites of Difference
During the 1960s Toronto underwent a rapid transformation in population and politics, becoming a cultural hotspot with its own identity.
The rise of jazz music in Canada, alongside the contributions made by Toronto abstract artists such as Painters Eleven and African-American musicians, paved the way for the Artists’ Jazz Band to explore their creativity. The Artists’ Jazz Band did not revolutionize or define jazz in Toronto; however, they did challenge audiences to experience improvised music in a new setting. The Artists’ Jazz Band embodied the zeitgeist of the 1960s, a period of experimentation and challenging norms. They not only pushed the boundaries of jazz but also contributed to the broader cultural renaissance of Toronto during this era.
The Artists’ Jazz Band is one way for us to understand what life and art in Toronto during the 1960s may have been like: free jazz in a free city.
Goddard, Peter. “Remembering Toronto’s 1960s Spadina Art Scene” Canadian Art features (July, 2014) https://canadianart.ca/features/remembering-spadina/ (accessed September 1, 2023).
Lee, David. “We Can Draw!: Toronto Improvisation, Abstract Expressionism, and the Artists’ Jazz Band” Critical Studies in Improvisation 11, (July 2017).
Miller, Mark. Jazz in Canada: Fourteen Lives (University of Toronto Press, 1982).
Miller, Mark. The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada (The Mercury Press, 2001).
Thomas, Ralph. “One man the changes may really hurt: the artist” Toronto Star, 4 March 1967, 27.