Frank Francis: riding Toronto’s jazz trane

Donna Yawching gets on board the little jazz bar that could, and then man — Frank Francis — who can

Frank Francis, owner of The Trane, a jazz bar in Toronto. Photograph by Donna Yawching

It’s Saturday night and the Trane Studio is packed. A smoking-hot trumpeter sizzles onstage; an appreciative audience sits rapt.

Situated miles away from Toronto’s overheated Entertainment District, the Trane – named in honour of John Coltrane – is a very hip little jazz bar, with some of the edgiest music the city has to offer.

The man behind the Trane is Frank Francis, who came to Toronto from Jamaica at the age of 12. But Francis is neither a musician nor a businessman by trade. His driving interests, for many years, have been theatre, film, and literature. He fooled around on the guitar as a kid (“with my cousins”), but had neither the training nor the urge to pursue it seriously.

So how did he end up being the creator of a venue where the city’s best musicians literally line up to play? It’s a winding tale.

Francis, 40, is a quiet man with thoughtful eyes and shoulder-length dreads. Married to a social worker, and the father of three young children, he fits no particular stereotype. He sips a cup of tea and ruminates on his past.

“I was always interested in the arts,” he says. Enrolling at York University in 1989, he majored in English, with a minor in theatre. His focus was creative writing, screenwriting and theatre directing. “I did a lot of work around cultural theory, I studied literature from an international perspective, ran the African Drama Club for a couple of years.” He also founded the Committee of Film Noir, to showcase filmmakers of African descent from all over the world. “I think that art and culture are the fires that keep contemporary society burning.”

After university he worked with a few small theatre companies before founding Caliban Arts Theatre in 1994. Caliban was a multi-disciplinary, non-profit arts organisation, showcasing artists of every stripe, primarily within the black community. “It was a groundbreaker at the time,” Francis recalls. Self-funded at first, the organisation eventually received support from all levels of government.

The Trane, in a roundabout way, grew out of Caliban. “With the live presentations, we were constantly running into issues of people wanting food and drink, and leaving the studio to find it,” Francis explains. So the Trane, a full-service bar and restaurant, was created in 2003 to host the live shows, while the parent organisation moved to another location and eventually fell dormant (though Francis hopes to re-launch Caliban in the near future).

He chose Coltrane as his touchstone because the legendary musician was “an inspirational figure”, fusing eastern and African rhythms and integrating them successfully into jazz.

“The idea was to make the Trane an inclusive cultural space, something that we could look back and forward to in the arts. For me, Coltrane signifies the past, the present and the future in terms of creative expression.”
Not the least of Francis’ motivations was the desire to give the black community “a fixed space that they could walk in and be proud of, for all the musical contributions that we make.”

He explains: “I always felt that, for a community that is solely responsible for the development of jazz, you could go into any of the jazz rooms in the city and not find one of us – far less an owner.” (He’s right about that: Toronto’s jazz audiences – and even musicians – tend to be predominantly middle-class and white.) “I felt it was time we had a space to call our own.”

Francis keeps his cover charges low in order to remain inclusive: it’s a tricky balancing act from the business point of view. The Trane has faced challenges in its six years, but along the way, it has welcomed great musicians (Wynton Marsalis has played there) and nurtured new ones. Musicians like the space because it’s an acoustic room; and also because “they get respect”.

The Trane has also developed a loyal clientele: it’s become, as Francis says, “a destination spot” for people wanting to hear its particular music. Gus Murle and Linda Mackintosh, for example, travel in regularly from the outskirts of Toronto to hang at the Trane. “Frank features a lot of nuanced stuff here that you don’t really hear anywhere else,” says Murle; and Mackintosh adds, “There’s no place like it in Toronto, that we know of.”

“I wouldn’t be able to do this if it didn’t inspire people,” Francis says frankly, contemplating the gruelling hours and financial strains that are synonymous with owning a jazz club. “The minute it stops doing that, I would be happy to move on. I have a whole lot of manuscripts I’d like to re-visit!”

If the Trane’s popularity is anything to go by, those manuscripts may languish in a drawer for many years to come.