Late October of 2013 I was in sunny San Jose, California, for a conference sponsored by the Alliance of Artist Communities, an organization that I’ve had membership in for several years. I was there to do some networking and take my own pulse, as it were, to see if this conference and the work of these artist communities made my heart pick up the beat; whether I came away with the sense that this was a direction I needed to take personally: Did I want to become part of an artist community? Could I find a residency where I could work on my own art practice(s) even as I contributed to making an environment for other artists to do the same? In a comic counterpoint to this important mission, I was being relentlessly plagued by the ear worm “Do you know the way to San Jose” and could not seem to shake it until I arrived at the Café Stritch, where a conference luncheon was being hosted.
Upon entering the club I was immediately captivated by the ambience of the place and the visually compelling, larger than life photos of great jazz musicians on the walls of the first and second floor of this rejuvenated eatery and music venue. I learned later that the photos were part of a larger series taken by photographic artist Kathy Sloane, whose work I was not familiar with, but whose subjects were mostly known to me, with the exception of one individual, whose likeness commands the attention of all who enter, either painted on the wall to the left of the entrance, or as the central backdrop photo on the musical stage.
This conference ultimately gave me an important, unlooked for gift. Aren’t those the best kinds of gifts; the unexpected ones that delight even as they arrive unannounced? I was given the chance to re-connect with a few long-dormant creative forces within me – the jazz vocalist, the photographer, the writer and the happy wanderer. Remember that song from the 50’s? I sang it at Girl Scout Camp in the 60’s – its lyrics are included at the end of this piece. It now takes over as the dominant ear worm, wreaking its havoc on my brain. It was in Café Stritch that I experienced again, after what felt like a long psychic drought, a zest for life, and a tantalizing, excitingly vital possible next chapter for myself. A refreshing change after spending numerous weeks moving lugubriously through the emotional and psychological adjustments involved in transitioning from being a 13-year employee in an arts college to joining the ranks of self-employed.
Three weeks after leaving my day gig I learned that I would require surgery to remove a portion of my colon and my life was not only turned upside down, but inside out. Thankfully, all biopsies results indicate there was no cancer, but the pesky polyp was of a size and configuration that the only safe course was to remove it, to avoid the possible outcome of it becoming cancerous in the years ahead. Morale of the story dear reader – do NOT stall on getting your routine colonoscopy, as I did.
To say I was dazed and confused after the one-two punch is an understatement. But one truth became ever more clear: I had stayed in my position too long, under circumstances that were far too stressful and the rewards of paycheck and influence had long ceased to be adequate compensation. Consequently, I was extremely out of balance and I would take this time and opportunity as gift, to recover, to heal, to find myself without the narrow and limiting definers of my old title and overwhelming responsibility in a politically fraught office and financially challenged institution. I would give myself the nourishment and attention that I had, for too long, deprived myself, working 50 and 60 hours a week.
I decided to delay the surgery until after this conference so I could discern whether there might be a future path for myself while networking with representatives from residencies all over the United States along with a few from Europe and Asia. In another article I’ll explore in greater detail the mission of the Alliance, and the span of artist residence communities that make up this very unique organization.
The Alliance hosted the opening night of the conference at Zero, multi-media artists exhibit space in what was once a huge garage with the rounded ceiling far above. The space resonated loudly with the sounds of hundreds of staff from the various participating residences, artists, and numerous members of the various governing boards as well as presenters of workshops that would take place in the week ahead. I was pleased to meet up with the always energetic and pragmatically visionary Michael Orlove, the former programming director of the Chicago Office of Cultural Affairs, who had recently taken over at the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) as the Director of Artist Residencies. I also met the charming Mario Garcia Durham, President and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP).
The evening was made perfect by what happened as I allowed myself to tune into the solo musician performing for us that evening. Cado dos Santos was playing to an audience that was far more involved in its conversations with one another, paying scant attention to a performer that I believed deserved better. And I was tired of trying to make small talk with so many new people. I moved closer to the speaker nearest me so that I could really hear his voice and guitar work and the effort more than paid for itself. I was delighted to hear him take standards and re-cast them on his guitar with distinctive latin grooves; sambas, bossas and the like. His voice, a rich resonant baritone had some gravel to it, due to his smoking habit. It was not a trained voice, but it was an authentic, charismatic and confident; one that served the lyrics and the music well. Then he started singing Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” over a marvelous samba which segued to bossa and back again on his guitar. I was captivated by the new life he breathed into the tune, and couldn’t help singing along, in sheer enjoyment, getting an embodied sense for what it felt like to sing over that type of rhythmical and melodic foundation – so different from the swing styling I typically employ when singing that song. Cado (short for Ricardo, dubbed as such by his toddler sister who couldn’t get her mouth around the R’s) noticed that I was singing and must have figured that I knew what I was doing, because as he played the instrumental bridge, he looked over at me to catch my eye, then with eyebrows raised, tilted his head toward the microphone in the mute invitation to join him up there and sing. I promptly joined him and started singing, my heart full, my face alight, and my body alive and channeling that spectacular surge I experience whenever I sing with great musicians. It is at once the joy that comes from singing as well as the sense of energetic connection with the other musicians while we’re linked for this song, heart, mind and soul. At the end of the song the applause was gratifying, but I was more aware of the gratitude I felt toward Cado for having the courage and generosity to invite me up there to sing, never having met me before or knowing how that risk might play out. I thanked him and he invited me to stick around so that we could talk. I did stick around and ultimately did one more tune with him “Corcovado (Quiet Night of Quiet Stars)” This time we each took a verse in our native language; English lyrics for me, Portuguese for him.
Later, when we talked, I learned that he was a self-taught musician who came to San Jose from Rio de Janeiro with his mother when he was about 12. Like most musicians I know, he works a day job to make ends meet. He still lives at home with his mother and younger sister. He also told me of Café Stritch as the nearest place to hear jazz in downtown San Jose. He’d played there before and had another gig lined up to play there again on November 2nd. We agreed to meet there on the evening that the Russo-Alberts Trio was playing and I would interview him and record the interview while also taking photos.
This interview and photo session were, and still are, a part of my plan for becoming self-employed as an interdisciplinary artist, singing jazz, and interviewing the various participants in the jazz scene: musicians, composers, club owners, fans etc. I hope to find a way to be in the music making act as well as stand back from it just far enough to interview the various individuals, photographing them and writing about it all. I had brought along my camera and recorder in case the opportunity presented itself, which I suppose in retrospect was an invitation to the universe to make it happen, and so it kindly obliged and provided me several opportunities.
Thursday afternoon after our conference luncheon I introduced myself to Steve Borkenhagen, the 60 something manager/owner of Café Stritch. I immediately liked this tall, lanky guy and his palpable enthusiasm for jazz. He’s a sunshiny sort that talks at the speed of light. I had to bring out my recorder to ensure I caught all that he was saying, as I would have been hopelessly lost if I had to rely on taking notes.
He told me that he and his 24-year old son Max had recently taken the family run restaurant, Eulipia, off line after 30 years, remodeled and re-purposed the site as a music club with food and renamed it Café Stritch. I commended him on the tasty re-design and the powerful illustrations throughout the space, and asked about the origins of the name. He explained that stritch refers to a modified alto-saxophone which resembles a larger version of a soprano saxophone (or perhaps a bass clarinet in shape at least) because the bell is not turned up in a U-shape as it typical with the alto, tenor and baritone saxes. In researching the subject a little more, I learned that modern legend claims that the name “stritch” was concocted by Rahsann Roland Kirk for his Buescher straight alto sax, a latter day variant on the original sax line created by Adolphe Sax.
This café’s name honors Kirk’s musical spirit as it references the instrument synonymous with Kirk’s groundbreaking use of it in unforgettable concerts. Kirk’s beloved stritch and one of his famous hats were given to Steve by Kirk’s widow who remains a good friend of the Borkenhagen family. Horn and hat are lovingly hung on the back stage wall each day after the club opens and they’re taken down each day before the club closes for the night.
I asked him about the source of the quotation on the wall above the bar. Steve explained that its a quoted from one of Kirk’s albums entitled THE RETURN OF THE 5000 POUND MAN, and on the album is a tune called THEME FOR THE EULIPIONS. The album was released in 1976, just a year before Kirk died.
He said that he opened his jazz club EULIPIA in 1977 and operated it for three years before converting it to a restaurant. Then for thirty years the restaurant operated until March of 2013 when Café Stritch opened at the same location. He hastened to say that though he and his wife owned the establishment since 1977, his son is the owner of the café, and Steve, the father, works for him. Max, the youngest son, is the artistic director, so he books all the music, the art selection and manages social media.
I ask Steve when he was first introduced to jazz, and he told me his father taught social studies and English literature in junior high school by day and played traditional jazz nights and weekends and would practice with the other musicians at their home.
Somehow, though I was interviewing Steve, the nature of our conversation had us frequently comparing notes and sharing anecdotes from our lives. The ages of our children, what newsletter service I use for the restaurants where I’ve done music booking, event planning, writing and communications, and then I found myself telling him about how I came to be terminated from my position and how it led me to begin this project.
Steve asked me about my singing, confessing that he has a soft spot for female jazz singers, and wondered what tunes I sing. I rattled off a few: Sister Sadie, Stolen Moments, Foggy Day and he interrupted (come to think of it, he interrupted often) to ask if I sang Lush Life – when I told him I did, he said it was his favorite ballad of all time. We talked about the fact that trying to tightly contain music within genres is not particularly meaningful and Steve mentioned how Coltrane is a perfect example of that in his rendition of “My Favorite Things” and how a local singer can bring him to tears with her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
After he acknowledged that jazz is in his DNA, I asked Steve about the club’s practice of booking many musical styles and artists in addition to jazz. “That’s because we have to make money,” he replied without missing a beat. The pop, indie and rock musicians will play for little or nothing, he said, even those with bigger names, so the house need not levy a cover charge, resulting in much larger audiences, usually two to three times the size of the jazz audience. Jazz musicians on the other hand will only play for a sizeable fee (relatively speaking), which in turn requires a cover charge, with the unfortunate consequence of smaller audiences.
After going down another conversational byway, we returned to Steve talking about his hope to create his own informal introduction to jazz course which he wants to call “The Gift of Jazz” He said the idea occurred to him in a recent celebration of what would have been Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 78th birthday, which featured Steve Turre, leading jazz trombonist who had performed for ten years with Kirk back in the 60’s and 70’s. He said the lineup of players for the three concerts and the music being performed was so powerful and momentous, yet, so inaccessible to many because they had no understanding of the form, the history, and important players. As I asked more questions with the intention of helping him formulate a plan (I’m an event planner, after all) he said I could be a co-conspirator if I wanted in making this plan manifest. He said he wouldn’t charge for the workshops because it was all about the love, not the money. We proceeded to knock around ideas about how he might structure the series and had a grand old time brainstorming possibilities.
Steve then segued into talking about the Kirk Birthday concert series featuring Turre and other heavy hitters. He scheduled the celebration to coincide with the San Jose Jazz Festival, which took place August 9 – 11, 2013. Kirk’s actual birthday is August 7, hence the synergistic opportunity. Two months later he could still quote Richard Scheinin, the classical and jazz music critic for the San Jose Mercury who tweeted to the world that the best event of the jazz festival would be found at Café Stritch, referring to the Kirk birthday celebration/tribute concert. Steve went so far to say that he was confident that when Scheinin looked back over the past year of concerts that he attended, he was sure that Scheinin would declare the Kirk tribute concert to be the most compelling and important musical event of the year.
I think about Steve’s pride and enthusiasm over Scheinin’s reaction and I understand it on so many levels. I know the power that journalist and critic Howard Reich’s voice has in the Chicago community and I imagine how I would feel, as an owner of a small struggling jazz club, to have Howard say similar things consistently about the jazz concert that I personally conceived of and brought to life. Especially when the big kid was in town – the San Jose Jazz Festival – with its impressive line up of jazz stars spanning three days.
This inspired my suggestion to Steve that he think about getting a 501c3 in place for the jazz programming that he does, while keeping the for-profit business of bar and food. The jazz musicians could meet with students in the club during the day and conduct in-services, and Steve could get underwriting for their steep fees to play at night while providing a service through his “Gift of Jazz” workshop series. He said that what he’d really like to do is eliminate the kitchen, extend the bar so that about 15 more stools could be put in place and the seating area on the floor could accommodate about 20% more people than it could currently. He declared that the food business was not a solid source of income and the kitchen was a waste of valuable space. He thought that becoming strictly a jazz club with a 501c3 for underwriting thoughtful programming could be a great thing. He admitted that he dreams of becoming a club like the Village Gate or the Village Vanguard with similar year round cutting edge, world renowned programming. He said that the band that would be playing that evening, the Russo Alberts Trio would have the kind of vibe that the top clubs have and I would see it if I came.
Before I left Steve, I asked to take his photo at the entrance. I went back to my hotel room with a lilt in my step and I found myself humming as I went, looking forward to returning that evening and dreaming of how I could travel, meeting and having wonderful conversations with more club owners like Steve, and sing alongside more talented, generous of heart musicians like Cado.
THE HAPPY WANDERER
I love to go a-wandering, Along the mountain track, And as I go, I love to sing, My knapsack on my back.
Val-deri, Val-dera, My knapsack on my back.
I love to wander by the stream, That dances in the sun, So joyously it calls to me, Come! Join my happy song!
I wave my hat to all I meet, And they wave back to me, And blackbirds call so loud and sweet, From ev’ry green wood tree. CHORUS
High overhead, the skylarks wing, They never rest at home, But just like me, they love to sing,
As o’er the world we roam.
Oh, may I go a-wandering, Until the day I die! Oh, may I always laugh and sing, Beneath God’s clear blue sky!