Features & Columns

Resurrecting Rahsaan

Third annual Rahsaanathon to revive the jazz great's
legacy and restore his signature horn

Intro | The Internet | Kamasi Washington | Rahsaanathon

THE SKRONK-FATHER: A comedian, political activist and absurdist, Rahsaan Roland Kirk would often play three saxophones at once.

Around 65 years ago, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1935-1977) visited the Gaetz Music Store in Columbus, Ohio, his home town. As the legend goes, Rahsaan had a dream in which he played three saxophones at once and felt compelled to seek out those instruments. In the basement of that music store, the proprietor found what came to be known as Kirk's "stritch"—a straight alto sax. Kirk would go on to become known for his unconventional techniques, which included playing three saxophones simultaneously.

His talent as a multi-tasker is but one spice in the zonked-out bouillabaisse that comprises Kirk. More than an incredible musician, he also played the part of comedian, political activist and absurdist.

Kirk's legacy and philosophy served as a guiding force for Steve and Kris Borkenhagen when they set out to create Eulipia and later Cafe Stritch, which this weekend will host its third annual Rahsaanathon—a three-day celebration of Kirk's life, music, family, friends and devotees. Running concurrent with the Summer Fest, the Rahsaanathon is not officially affiliated with San Jose Jazz. Nonetheless, in just a few short years, it has become a can't-miss event that both locals and those in town for the festival flock to in droves.

Legendary trombone maestro and former Kirk sideman, Steve Turre, will once again lead the show. James Carter will once again unleash a sonic zoo from his own saxophones. And Poet Betty Neals, who co-wrote and provided the voice for Rahsaan's Theme for the Eulipions 40 years ago, shall once again reprise that role.

However, this year's Rahsaanathon promises to top its first two seasons with the resurrection of the venue's namesake—Kirk's stritch.

Not long after Kirk died in 1977, Steve Borkenhagen opened up a restaurant and music venue called Eulipia, named after Kirk's song. Thirty-six years later, after it had been shuttered for a time, the Borkenhagens renamed the place Cafe Stritch, after Kirk's straight alto sax. Rahsaan became the establishment's patron saint.

After Kirk's widow, Dorthaan, got word of the story behind Cafe Stritch, she bequeathed her late husband's signature horn to the restaurant. It came exactly as Kirk left it—flecked with bits of masking tape and wrapped rubber bands, all remnants from crude repair jobs performed by Rahsaan himself. The relic hangs—along with Kirk's top hat—from the brick wall above the venue's stage during shows.

This year, however, Kirk's stritch will not be playing the role of passive icon. In honor of Rahsaan's 80th birthday this Friday, the Borkenhagens took the sax to Colin Price at West Valley Music, who repaired and refurbished the old stritch as if restoring a classic car. Price replaced the pads, made sure the keywork was functional, overhauled the busted parts and even tracked down a repairman in the Netherlands who made a new neck out of copper.

This weekend, both McNeal and Carter will play the restored stritch, while bandleader Turre, who was on stage for Rahsaan's last show, will oversee the performance in which the sax comes back to life.

"It's probably the most exciting part of this year's event," says Maxwell Borkenhagen, Steve and Kris's son, and artistic director of Cafe Stritch. "It's our namesake. When we first named the club, we never would have imagined we'd acquire the stritch. And even after acquiring it, it seemed like an impossibility that it would be played."

Rahsaan fanatics from across the country will descend upon Cafe Stritch this week for the gigs. One of those fanatics is May Cobb, whose third birthday fell on the same day that Rahsaan passed away. Cobb has been working on a book about Rahsaan for many years. She even attended the first Rahsaanathon and is now flying in from Texas just for the events this week.

"When I walked inside Cafe Stritch for the first time, I almost had to turn around and walk out because the mural of Rahsaan made me choke up," she says. "I couldn't believe that existed. It was very emotional to go to this space dedicated to him."

Rahsaan's widow Dorthaan says his popularity has escalated everywhere since Cafe Stritch started doing the Rahsaanathon. "The royalties have gone up," she says. "Younger people have discovered him and his older fans have a renewed interest."

If Cafe Stritch has played a role in exposing more people to Kirk's music, Borkenhagen is pleased. "I'm super proud to have even a small part in helping bring his music back to—especially to a younger audience," he says.

Borkenhagen continues, saying that he hopes more people can feel what he has felt—and what Dorthaan, Turre and others have sensed during the past two Rahsaanathons—that Kirk's spirit was in the room, intermingling with the music. "Each year, so far, the Rahsaanaton has had this energy," Borkenhagen says. "This year it seems even more amplified—especially since we have the stritch in playable condition again."

"He would be honored that these great musicians are paying tribute to him," Dorthaan says. Whatever the afterlife is, I'm sure he knows that he lives on."


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Cafe Stritch