Features & Columns

Rahsaan Roland Kirk Tribute
at Cafe Stritch

Cafe Stritch marks the birthday of Rahsaan Roland Kirk with a long weekend
of festivities concurrent with the Jazz Summer Fest
Rahsaan Roland Kirk ON THE KEYS AT THE KEYSTONE: Photographs by Kathy Sloane, such as this shot of pianist Cecil Taylor from Keystone Korner in the 1970s, are showing at Cafe Stritch and featured in her new book.

With the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest upon us, one particular unofficial microcosm will evince a mystical convergence of space-time continuum-shattering trajectories, all settling into play around Cafe Stritch in downtown San Jose.

Throughout the entire weekend, beginning as early as Wednesday, Aug. 7, Stritch will present a Rahsaan Roland Kirk Tribute Week, celebrating the legendary multi-instrumentalist's birthday. The celebration includes No Walls Between Us, a fantastic show of historical jazz photographs by Kathy Sloane, whose recent book, Keystone Korner: Portrait of a Jazz Club, documented her time hanging out in that legendary San Francisco joint during the 1970s. Kirk figures prominently in the book. All photos, as well as copies of the book, will be for sale, and Sloane will be present during the reception, Saturday, Aug. 10, 3-6pm. One of Kirk's collaborators decades ago, Steve Turre, will also perform two sets at Stritch Thursday through Saturday, beginning at 8pm.

That's only one aspect of the experience, one current-era slice of evidence from a multidimensional web. Since history is never linear anyway, allow me to point out that Cafe Stritch, formerly the Eulipia Restaurant, is already steeped in Kirk lore—the owners consider Kirk to be their in-house patron saint—and the connections unfold on multiple levels. Stritch takes its name from Kirk's trademark saxophone, and the place already features a mural of him on the left wall, right inside the door. The Borkenhagens first opened their restaurant Eulipia in 1977, in this same building, naming it after Kirk's, "Theme for the Eulipions." According to the owners, the spirit of Rahsaan has always lingered, especially now that a complete reinvention of their business has emerged. When Turre sets up shop this week, Betty Neals even will sit in for "Theme for the Eulipions."

Upstairs in the secret offices at Cafe Stritch, Max Borkenhagen, son of original owner Steve, articulated a quantum field of jazz trajectories and improvised history, all of which he says will swirl together like a fine cappuccino this week. As we yakked, a copy of Sloane's book occupied a music stand next to me. It seemed alive, as did a copy of Kirk's LP, The Return of the 5000 Lb. Man—the one with "Theme for the Eulipions"—sitting on Borkenhagen's desk. Since our local jazz festival is no longer a suburban commuter event, since many components of it are now integrated into the local independent business landscape, with patrons lingering around into nighttime, Borkenhagen said his hopes were high.

"Eulipia, when my parents opened it in 1977, was very similar to what we're doing now," he explained. "It was more of a cafe, a gallery, a dynamic sort of art-bohemian space. Bringing together all this history, this week, is sort of magical for us. This place began as just one idea my parents had and now there's a connection between Rahsaan, who's sort of our patron saint, and the art and music cultures of this neighborhood. And it just happens that his birthday is the same week as the jazz festival."

Kathy Sloane, whose atmospheric photos now grace all the walls of Stritch, both downstairs and upstairs, provides yet another human dimension to the quantum field revealing itself this weekend. Both she and her photos are living connections to the legacy that jazzmen like Rahsaan Roland Kirk forged, especially in regards to the civil rights movement.

"What struck me as soon as I first walked into Keystone Korner, was that this was a metaphor for the civil rights movement," Sloane told me. "It was another way of talking about freedom. I was really struck by that, and interested in learning more about the people who were making this music, where the music came from, what their lives were like trying to play this music in a not-so-welcoming environment. The jazz life is an improvised life. It's a difficult one. They don't get treated like symphony musicians."

For Rahsaan's birthday week celebration, guests will awaken to an interconnected multi-dimensional web of history, as only Cafe Stritch can provide. What makes any great festival is all the specific subcultures, microcosms and utopias (Eulipias) within the larger festival itself. Thanks to the patron sainthood of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, we have a perfect example.