1989 saw the opening of the Senator Steakhouse at 251 Victoria street. Shortly thereafter The Jazz Club opened atop of the Senator and for 16 successful years the Senator fed music lovers before they would venture upstairs to take in the finest music the city had to offer. The doors finally closed on both the Senator and Jazz club on 2005, and it wasn’t until 2013 that Colin and Joan Hunter came up with the brilliant idea combining dining and live music.
The Jazz Bistro was born and has brought life back into the once dark and vacant 251 Victoria street. The Bistro is an elegant restaurant with classic fine dining decor. Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling and various artwork is littered across the Jazz Bistro’s walls. Casual diners could be intimidated by the Bistro’s surroundings, as most guests are there to dine, sip fine wine and take in the sounds of music. Ultimately all are welcome for a small cover charge regardless of how much you plan to spend.
Shortly after 8, the lights dim as Ken Whitley takes the stage. Whitley is a seasoned Jazz/Blues musician that sprinkles all of the classic elements within his performance. Accompanied by standup bassist Alister Whitehead and percussionist Derek Ray, Whitely pushed forward with his rich, storytelling voice and well versed guitar playing. Whitehead’s bass lines are commanding yet ever so playful. Ray bangs upon the wooden box with a certain animation and they make the songs look easy. It’s clear their having a good time up there.
Whitely attempts to entertain the crowd with stories from the road, it appears he’s taken on the role of master of ceremonies as well as frontman. He tends to ramble which detracts from the fluidity of his set. The patrons offer up chuckles and the band enters into number after number of 1, 4, 5 jazz influenced blues progressions. The melodies dance off their strings. Whitley accompanies one of the songs with a vocal impersonation of a trumpet. Its silly and illustrates he wants to keep the show light hearted. Whitley later showcases the higher range of his voice and glimpses of his true talent are revealed.
Later Whitley incites an unexpected duet with one of the audience members, who knew the Jazz Bistro is a haven for undiscovered talent?! After some more playful banter the audience is warned of entering the “deep blues” territory with or without a life raft. Whitley greases up the acoustic slide and unleashes fury on the Jazz Bistro as Whithead and Ray provide competent accompaniment. There are times you could swear B.B. King has been resurrected and others where the balloon pops and the passion leaves the room in an instant.
One thing is for sure. Whitley plays a mean slide guitar. He changes instruments like underwear in between numbers, combining both electric and acoustic guitars with a side order of mandolin. He’s a long winded storyteller who makes the strings sing. As he closes the set with some gospel reminiscent of something you’d hear on set of O Brother Where Art Thou, the patrons sing along on command in support of the closing moments. It seems as though everyone has enjoyed themselves despite some inconsistency from both Whitely and his supporting cast. The Jazz Bistro may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly a lovely place to grab a bite and take in some tunes.