‘Round breakfast

Early-morning jazz music is a specialty at Ellington’s café in Toronto. Donna Yawching samples the menu

The Fair-Trade Ensemble, led by Ben D’Cunha on the piano. Photograph by Donna YawchingWinston Hosang, owner of Ellington’s. Photograph by Donna Yawching

Think jazz, and your mind conjures up a dark, smoky bar, ‘round midnight. What you probably don’t imagine is a cheery breakfast scene: muffins and fair-trade coffee served amid bright yellow walls.

This is Ellington’s, possibly the only place in Toronto where you’ll find live jazz being played every weekday morning, between 9.30 and 11 am. In the last five years, this funky little music cafe has carved out a space for itself on St Clair Avenue West, becoming a vital part of the local community.  It’s the kind of place where you can relax with a mug of tea and read a book for the entire morning, without garnering any dirty looks from management, or pointed questions about whether you’d like anything else. Even children are welcome, as evidenced by the pile of toys and picture books in one corner.

Ellington’s is the brainchild of Winston Hosang, who opened the cafe in 2004 because he “wanted to do something a little unique” in the neighbourhood where he’s spent much of his life.

A classically trained musician who switched styles while in university, Hosang, 44 – dread-locked, wide-smiled, Jamaican-born-and-bred – enjoyed a decade of success as lead singer of the popular reggae band Fujahtive. A hot number in Toronto in the early 90s, they played at such iconic venues as The Bamboo Club and Lee’s Palace; they also toured across North America, recorded two albums and several videos, won a Canadian Reggae Music award and were nominated for a Juno.  When the band eventually disintegrated in 2000, Hosang worked with HMV, a major music retail chain, managing the company’s classical and jazz departments. So it’s hardly surprising that when he decided to spread his wings and fly solo, music was once again the magnet.

He marshalled his life savings, and Ellington’s was born: a space that offers live music, dub poetry readings and regular Wednesday-night jam sessions where Hosang and friends rock the place with reggae. CD sales – the type of CDs not easily found in chain stores – subsidised the business as it struggled to its feet. But with the onset of MPV players and downloadable music, Ellington’s had to evolve.

“That was part of the reason for this jazz in the morning,” says Hosang, who moved to Toronto at the age of ten. “It plays a very significant role, because as far as I know, this doesn’t happen anywhere else in the city.”

Musician Ben D’Cunha concurs. “It is unique,” he says. “I haven’t heard of another place with live music in the morning.” Pianist and singer, D’Cunha is the heartbeat of the small band that serves up smooth jazz classics at Ellington’s every morning. It all started off casually enough, when Hosang installed a piano, three years ago. D’Cunha, a vocal musician and long-time friend, decided he might as well practise there, rather than all alone at home. “It’s an old piano; it needed to be played,” he explains. “And I needed to improve my skills.”

Like bees to honey, D’Cunha’s music drew other musicians to the scene. A jazz jam developed, fluid at first, then coalescing into a fairly regular configuration of piano, bass, drums and trombone that now calls itself the Fair-Trade Ensemble. The mellow music has attracted a devoted following of regulars who gather most mornings to sink into comfortable club chairs and flip through the communal newspaper, while sipping socially-responsible coffee. Hosang knows most of his clientele by name: this is a home away from home, for all concerned.  One habitué is documentary filmmaker Bruno Moynie, who says he’s making a film about Ellington’s. “This café is crucial to our sanity,” he declares, “especially in winter. Those guys playing, it helps us survive.” Turning to Hosang, he adds, “You have a social role here.”