Keynote Café owner celebrates its ‘community of creative people’ as closing nears
Jill Sorrels just wanted to hear live music again when she made the decision to open Keynote Cafe on Jeannette’s Clay Avenue in 2007.
“I missed the music,” Sorrels said of get-togethers at her home where friends would regularly play and sing. “I had enough money for about six months, and I thought, ‘If I open this place, I can get live music.’ ”
Recently, Sorrels was poring over a wall covered in autographs from musicians who have come through the Keynote Cafe since it opened.
After a dozen years, the Keynote will host its final concert Saturday, and Sorrels has begun booking the final run of shows at its current home on South Fourth Street, the former Jeannette News Dispatch building.
Sorrels was not initially planning to retire, but received a cash offer on her building from Mosaic Community Church that she eventually decided she couldn’t pass up.
“I initially said it as a joke: ‘You know, I’m turning 60, so if you’d ever want to buy this building’ … the pastor’s eyes got huge,” she said. “This place is my whole identity, and it took a long time for me to come to terms with selling it.”
Back in 2007, Sorrels said Speal’s Tavern on Route 119 was one of the only places in the area that regularly hosted live music. With no budget for advertising, she began letting friends know about the Keynote.
“One by one, my friends started coming in, and then they started forming their own bands and making other musical friends,” she said. “It really became this community of creative people.”
Sorrels didn’t have money to decorate the Keynote, but instead partnered with local artists who filled its walls and corners with local art, which Sorrels sold without taking a commission. The upstairs also hosts a small art gallery.
Even sitting empty with most of the lights turned off on a weekday morning, vibrant islands of colored sculptures command attention from all corners, the work of Greensburg artist Brian McCall.
Keynote alumni have gone on to form bands, attend prestigious music schools such as Berklee College of Music in Boston and become record producers in Nashville.
Some, like Antolena Damico of Penn Township, are just getting their start in music, and the Keynote has served as an important part of that process.
“The Keynote is a feeling, like music is to me,” said Damico, 12. “Although I sang for years before I went there, I learned from going there in this last year that happiness is like music: You take it with you wherever you go.”
For Sorrels, who grew up on Clay Avenue, opening the Keynote was her way of trying to help revitalize Jeannette, where she is a third-generation resident.
“Twenty-five years ago, the last glass factory closed,” she said. “Around that same time, my dad sold his business, Urbani’s Healthland, to Rite Aid, and he was heartbroken for his town. He said it would take a generation to come back and that it would only come back through the eyes of artists who could see its potential.”
Her father wasn’t wrong: Art-related businesses like The Glass City, AB Ceramics and You Are Here are all within walking distance of the Keynote Cafe.
“There are so many talented people in this town,” Sorrels said. “I wanted to give them a chance to show off that talent.”
When she first opened, Sorrels said friends and neighbors thought she was crazy.
“And maybe I was, but I knew what I wanted to do,” she said. “This was my little creation. After a few years, people started to notice. They’d come in, they’d start having fun, and that’s what music and art do for people.”
That is certainly the case for Damico.
“Even though the Keynote will not be there, it was Jill and the people that came through there that made it so special,” Damico said. “And they aren’t going anywhere.”
For Sorrels, the decision to sell the building was not easy, but Keynote patrons like Damico give her confidence.
“I saw a younger generation that came here for a decade, and they’re now doing it on their own,” Sorrels said. “They’re finding venues and making music, and I want to hand this baton to them.”
The Keynote’s final concert will be June 29.
For details, visit KeynoteCafe.wordpress.com.
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter .