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Annual Rahsaanathon Celebration Leaves Indelible Mark

The fourth annual tribute to the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk ignited
and united Cafe Stritch last week
Trombone virtuoso Steve Turre and others slayed at Rahsaanathon. Photo by Greg Ramar

The fourth annual tribute to the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk ignited and united Cafe Stritch last week. Adepts from across the country flew in for the revelry, and Rahsaan's music once again captured the few hundred combined patrons and freeloading journalists who were lucky enough to witness the masterful repertoire of jazz instrumentation, bluesy overtones and extended techniques for wind and brass.

Forget everything you learned about circular breathing and multiphonics. These cats were off the charts.

In one sense, though, the ripple effects of Rahsaan's genius flowered before the gigs even started. Adam Kahan's documentary, The Case of the Three Sided Dream, screened at Camera 3 and then spilled kitty-corner across the parking lot to the upstairs mezzanine of Cafe Stritch for a panel session, both of which deconstructed Rahsaan's legacy and reinvented history all over again.

The film included a color version of Rahsaan's notorious 1971 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show with a blistering entourage of geniuses, including Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp. The group was fighting to introduce more adventurous flavors of jazz to mainstream audiences, since they didn't really have a place on television. After negotiating with Sullivan's boys, someone agreed to perform a "safe" number, a blasé dinner-schmaltz reduction of "My Cherie Amour," a tune Rahsaan had already recorded. In a now famous episode, the band dismissed the agreement and instead slaughtered the viewers with Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song." Due to apparently unrelated circumstances, that was the last-ever episode of The Ed Sullivan Show.

The dude on piano for that 1971 gig, Sonelius Smith, played on Sunday at Stritch, in the grand finale, after the three main Rahsaanathon gigs concluded. Smith also showed up to the screening and participated in the panel session. It's quite a rare occurrence in downtown San Jose to encounter someone who performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Gong Show, maybe. But not Ed Sullivan.

At the panel, Rahsaan's widow, Dorthaan Kirk, suggested that Rahsaan erred in 1971 by breaking the agreement and playing the more avant-garde music on TV. It didn't help his cause, she said. He should have just agreed to play what the organizers wanted. Instead, he burned the very bridge he was trying to build. That suggestion sparked a spirited debate on what would have happened if Rahsaan had acquiesced. Would he have been successful at getting jazz, or "black classical music" as he called it, into the mainstream entertainment industry? We'll never know.

When the primary Rahsaanathon gigs exploded over the next three nights, the legends in the bands showed they have improved with age. Led by a front line of trombonist Steve Turre and two of the wildest horn players anywhere, James Carter and Charles McNeal, the deft ensemble also included Marcus Shelby, Matt Clark and Darrell Green. The octogenarian poet Betty Neals once again reprised her original spoken word component to "Theme for the Eulipions," as well as words for Rahsaan's tune, "The Inflated Tear." Vocalist Terrie Odabi likewise provided a booming set of pipes, adding a bluesy piece to the jazz package.

In fact, the word "jazz" barely even captures the spirit or the music of Rahsaan, because a dude like him simply can't be captured. He was all over the map, from dixieland to the avant-garde, from traditional to extreme noise terror. A true original, Rahsaan felt equally at home jamming with howling dogs or a talking calculator as he did with saxophones, a trap set or a stand-up bass player. As a result, sheet metal, conch shells, whistles and piano string manipulation all made their way into a set spanning the entire dynamic range, elegiac and contemplative for one tune, vibrant and rocking for the next. And the band held the intimate crowd's attention throughout the night.

Pieces of every tune stuck in my head over the weekend. The normal term for such a phenomenon is 'earworm,' but in this case they were 'Rahsaan worms.' At the end of each night, I felt like a teenager at a punk rock show. I didn't want to leave until the last person was gone.