Features & Columns

Second Annual Rahsaanathon

Cafe Stritch continues to pay tribute to its patron saint
with its second annual Rahsaanathon
 RAHSAAN ROLAND KIRK KEEP ROLAND ON: Rahsaan Roland Kirk inspired Cafe Stritch and its predecessor with his adventurous, groundbreaking music. Photograph by Heinrich Klaffs

RAHSAAN ROLAND KIRK played three saxophones at once. Without the normal human instrument of eyesight, he may have been "legally" blind, but he could definitely project into and connect with the sonic universe. Before Rahsaan passed away in 1977, he influenced many creative geniuses, everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Thurston Moore.

During that same era of space-time, 1977, a diehard Rahsaan devotee, Steve Borkenhagen, opened up a bohemian jazz temple in downtown San Jose, in Rahsaan's honor. It was named Eulipia, after one of Rahsaan's most exploratory and eloquent tracks. Over the decades, Eulipia evolved into an upmarket restaurant, and then just last year, into a brand new shrine to Rahsaan, Cafe Strich. This new temple draws its name from the modified straight Buescher alto saxophone that Rahsaan played.

Last year, the official sequence of events celebrating Rahsaan's birthday unfolded right up to the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. Steve Turre, former bandmate of Rahsaan's, famed trombonist and member of the Saturday Night Live Band, and also a virtuoso of the conch shell, led a world-class band in performing cosmic renditions of Rahsaan's music. Dorthaan Kirk, Rahsaan's widow, was on hand to bless the event and even donate Rahsaan's straight Buescher alto sax—his stritch—as well as the top hat he wore on the cover of The Return of the 5,000 Lb. Man—the album from which "Theme for the Eulipions" came from. Both are now attached to the wall above the stage.

"For me, it was the most amazing musical performance I've seen in my life," says Max Borkenhagen, now the artistic director of the temple, carrying on the devotion his dad instantiated. "A lot of that is because it was so loaded with spiritual and historical energy for me and my family, and Dorthaan, and the whole thing. It was an amazing magical convergence of all these forces, my personal family history, as well."

Now rechristened the RAHSAANANTHON, this year's celebration is ratcheted up several notches. Turre returns with the main band, presenting another three-day Rahsaan tribute, with the renowned James Carter in the mix. Other sidemen in the group, all powerful bandleaders in their own right, include Charles McNeal (alto sax), Matt Clark (piano), Marcus Shelby (upright bass), Darrell Green (drums), and Terrie Odabi (vocals). Betty Neals also returns to perform "Theme for the Eulipions," which she co-wrote with Rahsaan. On Sunday, the weekly Eulipions Jazz Jam will close out the RAHSAANATHON with bandleader Peppe Merolla (drums) being joined by Jeremy Pelt (trumpet) along with Matt Clark (piano) and Michael Zisman (upright bass) performing songs from The Return of the 5,000lb Man as well as originals.

Borkenhagen says Rahsaan's music, his funky eccentric vibe, and his spirit as patron saint of the Cafe Stritch Temple will evoke cosmic energy as never before. This was the always the best thing about Rahsaan's music anyway.

"Rahsaan never does what anyone else would have done," Borkenhagen explains. "He never played the same instrument the same way someone else might play it. He would go from one instrument to the next, playing some miscellaneous percussion, flutes, an eccentric saxophone, or multiple horns at once. He was a true creative in that way."

This year, Rahsaan's widow Dorthaan will also return, directly from East Orange, New Jersey, where she still lives in the house she and Rahsaan originally moved into in 1974. When speaking over the phone and recalling the events at Cafe Stritch last year, she says Rahsaan's presence could be felt in the club.

"His spirit was there," she says. "Northern California was Rahsaan's favorite area of California. He always thought that part of California—San Francisco and those parts—was more like the east coast. He always thought LA was too laid back."

Musically, poetically, mystically and urban-vibrophonically speaking, this is everything that a real jazz club should be doing. And this year's RAHSAANATHON is at least as mind-blowing as anything you'll see in any back alley in New York or Berlin. Even better, Cafe Stritch caters to all ages. Dorthaan Kirk seems refreshed to hear such things.

"I want young people to really get into jazz, so we'll really have an audience for years to come," she says. "So hopefully that's happening."