A strip-mall in the suburbs is not the first place you would expect to find a funky live music venue. In a setting more usually geared toward stocking up on canned tomatoes or picking up your dry cleaning, it’s a little surprising to stumble across a place like Cornerstone Music Cafe.
Far from the shimmering glass towers and hipster hangouts of downtown Calgary, way down the Deerfoot Trail in the mid-south enclave of Deer Ridge, Cornerstone Music Cafe sits in an unassuming strip-mall anchored by a Sobey’s at one end and a Dairy Queen across the parking lot. A row of homey wooden chairs lines the sidewalk between the glass storefront and the parking lot rimmed with cars. A chalkboard beside the door announces who will be taking the stage that afternoon. The hiss of the coffee press, the fragrance of Sylvia’s homemade curry, and the promise of one of her sinfully rich gluten-free oatmeal cream cookies draws you inside.
Twenty years ago Cornerstone Music was not unlike all the other small music schools you see scattered across any city, offering after-school and weekend lessons to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Ginger Baker wannabes. Over the decades, the storefront music school built a solid reputation amongst budding suburban musicians. It was also the site of a budding romance between the music school’s office manager and a newly hired instructor.
“There might have been some stalking involved,” Sylvia Johnston admits, with a laugh. “I used to listen outside the door while Jim was teaching his students.” Evidently her charms were not lost on the young drummer either; a few years later, the two married and took over the music school.
When Jim and Sylvia Johnston had the opportunity to buy Cornerstone Music in March 2011, the saw it as a chance to marry their joint passions of music and food. After six months of renovations the modest little music school reopened, with a slightly expanded name and a seriously expanded mandate. Cornerstone Music Cafe (still a music school with an impressive roster of instructors, all of whom are local working musicians) reopened as an intimate coffee house.
Cornerstone is a funky little place, with a warm comfortable vibe. Dark walls are anchored by massive black and white mounted photos of Jim and Sylvia as toddlers, one playing piano, the other wielding a hand-held mixer. Their futures, evidently, were predetermined.
Sylva runs the front of the house. She’s the chef, maitre d’, server and barista, who also heads a very in-demand catering service. You know, in her spare time. When Jim’s not teaching students, facilitating Cornerstone’s 16 music instructors or spearheading the school’s seven band programs, he drums with a handful of Calgary institutions, including The Kirby Sewell Band and local jazz phenom Tim Tamashiro. Calgary may be a large city, but the music community is tight. Jim’s intimate bond to Calgary’s often overlapping music circles means that there is never a shortage of well-known local musicians willing to make the trek down to Deer Ridge to headline Cornerstone’s Saturday afternoon live performances.
Saturday is when Cornerstone Music Cafe really lives up to its name. At 3:30 the mics go up in the corner of the room and people squish over a bit more on the padded bench that lines the wall. “We can seat 25 people in here, but we’ve had way more,” Jim laughs. “We’ve even had line-ups.” Not your usual strip-mall occurrence. For two hours, live music fills the small room, as musicians lay down a Saturday afternoon groove and regulars erase the memory of the work week with good-natured chats and another cup of java. As live performances go, this is about as intimate as you can get. “Saturdays are really relaxed, very chill,” says Sylvia.
Although live performances are currently limited to Saturday afternoons, Jim and Sylvia plan to expand that repertoire to include Friday nights, albeit flavoured with a more uptown vibe, a distinct jazz beat. Friday nights at Cornerstone will mean themed meals, complete with wine pairings, all served up to a backdrop of smoky sultry jazz. “There’s just something about this room that really fits jazz,” Sylvia maintains. First though, the Johnstons need to set aside a little time for the imminent birth of their first child. “Sylvia gets one day to have the baby,” Jim insists. “We’re really short-scheduled.” Sylvia, in her usual unflappable manner, takes it all in stride. “We really feel like the cafe was our first baby anyway.” www.cornerstonemusic.ca