Crossing the Light Rail tracks on 1st street, we headed straight toward a shop we hadn't seen before, full of San Jose merchandise. On the storefront window were about 500 flyers, but the one that caught my eye was advertising a tribute to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a jazz musician my father-in-law-ish Dan (hereafter referred to as "Catfish") introduced us to a few months previous. Just lookit him...
Kirk was long dead, but this was his birthday weekend, so a local club was celebrating with a musical memorial. As it was also Catfish's birthday weekend and he was a big Kirk fan (he'd seen him play decades ago in Philadelphia), so stopping in on that seemed a no-brainer.
We made mental note of the event but made no definite plans to go, and nobody mentioned it again until the four of us were seated in the hotel's restaurant, resting after a long day and pretty much fixin' to head up to bed.
Catfish mentioned the tribute and we collected enough wherewithal between us to go check it out.
The only problem was nobody remembered the name of the club, and though I'd lived a decade in downtown San Jose, I didn't recognize the name when I'd read it earlier. A Google search brought up Cafe Stritch, a new club that, as luck would have it, was located less than a full block's walk from our hotel.
Approaching, Catfish mentioned that the "stritch" of the club's name is a rare Buescher alto sax that Rahsaan Roland Kirk used to play. What? How incredibly random, or else....how incredibly intentional (?). We'd learn soon enough.
A man who turned out to be the club's owner was standing outside when we walked up, and he implored us to come in. He said nothing we could possibly find to do that night would be cooler. He didn't need to convince us; we'd sought it out. And beyond that, the place was already packed. But I sure did like his enthusiasm. He said there was one set left and offered us half off the cover. (Nothing sweeter than the sweetening of a deal.)
Before that night, I new little about Kirk except that he was 1) some kind of musical mad scientist savant and 2) he was blind. Here is one of the original videos Catfish had shown us (do me [yourself] the favor of hanging in there until 1:44):
What the HELL, right?
In a good way.
You and me--we all should know a little bit more about this man. Like this, from the website all.about.jazz:
"His playing was generally rooted in soul jazz or hard bop, but Kirk's knowledge of jazz history allowed him to draw on many elements of the music's history, from ragtime to swing and free jazz. Kirk also regularly explored classical and pop music.
Kirk played and collected a number of musical instruments, mainly various saxophones, clarinets and flutes. His main instruments were a tenor saxophone and two obscure saxophones: the manzello (similar to a soprano sax) and the stritch (a straight alto sax lacking the instrument's characteristic upturned bell). Kirk modified these instruments himself to accommodate his simultaneous playing technique. He typically appeared on stage with all three horns hanging around his neck, as well as a variety of other instruments, including flutes and whistles, and often kept a gong within reach. Kirk also played harmonica, english horn, recorders and was a competent trumpeter. He often had unique approaches, using a saxophone mouthpiece on a trumpet or playing nose flute. He additionally used many extramusical sounds in his art, such as alarm clocks, whistles, sirens, a section of common garden hose (”the black mystery pipes”) and even primitive electronic sounds (before such things became commonplace).
Kirk was also an influential flautist, employing several techniques that he developed himself. One technique was to sing or hum into the flute at the same time as playing. Another was to play the standard transverse flute at the same time as a nose flute.
Some observers thought that Kirk's bizarre onstage appearance and simultaneous multi-instrumentalism were just gimmicks, especially when coming from a blind man, but these opinions usually vanished when Kirk actually started playing. He used the multiple horns to play true chords, essentially functioning as a one-man saxophone section. Kirk insisted that he was only trying to emulate the sounds he heard in his mind.
Kirk was also a major exponent and practitioner of circular breathing. Using this technique, Kirk was not only able to sustain a single note for virtually any length of time; he could also play 16th-note runs of almost unlimited length, and at high speeds. His circular breathing ability enabled him to record Concerto For Saxophone on the Prepare Thyself To Deal With A Miracle LP in one continuous take of about 20 minutes' playing with no discernible “break” for inhaling. His long-time producer at Atlantic Jazz, Joel Dorn, believes he should have received credit in The Guinness Book of World Records for such feats (he was capable of playing continuously “without taking a breath” for far longer than exhibited on that LP), but this never happened."
Anyway, that is all stuff I've since learned. Really, I would have been happy to be out anywhere listening to jazz in order that the party continue, but this seemed especially promising.
We walked in and surveyed the exposed brick, the black and white mural and photographs, the chalkboard menu. It was oozing cool.
Then we leaned in and waited:
- for the storm to break
- for the reckoning
- for the promised land
- for the envelopment
- for the freakshow
- for the smile-wide-open-bop-your-head-feel-it-feel-it-feel-it-frenzy of jazz done right(eously).
Kevin watched me taking it in and moving and digging it, and he whispered in my ear that he enjoyed glimpsing what seemed like a younger version of me, how he imagined I was in my 20's. He was right. I was right there again: filled with my 20-something wonder and big vision and full-and-complete appreciation for all that was good. Even all that was not good. Just all that was.
And they hadn't even brought out the heavy artillery yet.
The weightiest, most spectacular woman in the room that night was a slight-of-frame, short-haired octogenarian who'd been seated off to the side of the stage with a wisdom-of-ages smile on her face, taking it all in. Toward the end of the set she was introduced to the crowd as Betty Neals, the woman who'd performed spoken word on one of Kirk's albums in the 1970's. She'd come all the way from wherever goddesses like her now reside to be present for this evening.
She stood up, took a microphone in hand and her place center stage and brought the fucking house down. Imagine this cadence, only coming from a beautifully aged, regal looking woman who simply OWNED the space surrounding her:
It was a striking literary experience.
Her performance was followed by that of a genius female vocalist (I wish I'd made note of her name so I could seek her out again) who brought the place onto its feet in one of the best climaxes to a jazz sets I've attended.
With the crowd spent and the tribute come to a close, the club's owner and son stood up front and addressed us. The owner mentioned how his former restaurant, Eulipia (named after a Kirk album--they had some kind of family tie to the artist. Kirk's widow was also in attendance that night) had occupied that retail space for upwards of 30 years (some kind of near-record for downtown San Jose, for sure), until one day when the family decided it was time to honor their REAL passions and open a jazz club.
My heart sang and sank simultaneously. For the decade I'd lived in San Jose, I'd wished somebody would open a jazz club, and now here it was. And here it was in so much STYLE. And with so much energy. And launched with such joy.
But I'd moved away. Too far away to just drop in on a weekly or even bi-weekly or even monthly basis.
I was here now.
This is what I realized as I listened to that club owner and his son talk about what went into the renovation, what I thought about when I heard the owner say "thank you for joining me on this evening, which I consider to be the apex of my career": I realized that the electrical energy we were all feeling in that room was the good vibin' fallout of a dream coming true. It was the witnessing of one person's thing-they-never-believed-would-actually-happen, happening.
So *that's* what that looks/feels/sounds like.
God, what an honor. What a true honor, though.
I thought that I need to walk in on some more dreams coming true. Really. Your album launch, your exhibit opening, your IPO, your retirement or housewarming or graduation or even your 12-36 hours of labor: count me in! Invite me along! Please. I'll take pictures of it and everything.
I will cry for sure, too.
I was watching a Louis C.K. clip this morning wherein he talked about how people need to let themselves wallow a bit in moments of sadness because it is only in so doing that they can fully feel moments of happiness. Giving way--all the way--to the one is what makes room for the other (Kahlil Gibran said this about 100 years ago too "...when you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth, you are weeping for that which has been your delight," but I appreciated Louis C.K.'s updated vernacular). Anyway, I was thinking that, similarly, the sweetness of dreams coming true is tasted in direct relation to the hours spent dreaming, the blood/sweat/tears spilled in the achieving, the thoroughness of one's stubborn and wisdom-filled refusal to let the dream go.
Thirty years doing the dirty, dirty and difficult work of running a successful restaurant when that man REALLY wanted to own a jazz club is a lot of time put in. That's a lot of steeping, as I like to call it. But boy oh boy must he feel it was worth it, now.
In more than a decade attending the San Jose Jazz Festival, that has taken up space as one of my richest, juiciest memories.