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How Jazz Became Cool In Silicon Valley Again

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THREE-SIDED DREAMER: Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s music and cosmic philosophy have guided the evolution of Café Stritch and play an instrumental role in it’s bohemian vibe.

THREE-SIDED DREAMER: Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s music and cosmic philosophy have guided the evolution of Café Stritch and play an instrumental role in it’s bohemian vibe.

Rising above the din of boisterous, drink-fueled conversation and clinking glassware, a saxophone’s squawk snakes through the crowd. Parting the cigarette smoke haze and ambling over sticky tabletops, a wandering double bass, a splashy trap kit and a peppery piano plod on. It’s the kind of place where a private eye might have met a dame desperately in need of help, or a venue for a gang of beats to stage a poetry slam. But this is not a page out of a dimestore novel or a scene from decades past. It happens right now—every weekend and most weeknights, anyway—in downtown San Jose.

“That’s one of my favorite things about playing at Café Stritch,” says Howard Wiley, a Bay Area-based saxophonist and drummer. The SoFA restaurant, bar and live music venue reminds him of some of his favorite jazz recordings. “You hear people talking. You hear people ordering drinks. You hear people engage in the music.”

What’s more, Wiley says: “I come across younger people.”

It’s not that he’s an ageist. Wiley just gets excited when he sees fresh young faces taking an interest in jazz. And lately, jazz lovers have plenty to be excited about.

All That Jazz
Café Stritch’s fourth annual Rahsaanathon—a five-day tribute to the life and work of visionary saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, starting Aug. 3—and next week’s San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, the 27th annual installment, both serve to underscore Wiley’s enthusiasm about the state of the genre.

Brendan Rawson, executive director of San Jose Jazz, also gets excited about introducing younger audiences to jazz, which, he admits, has a way of alienating people who might otherwise be interested in the genre as a whole.

“Jazz, for a lot of folks, can be a loaded term,” he says. “It’s either that vapid, ‘smooth jazz’ sort of stuff, or it’s: ‘That’s that weird shit; why can’t they just play the right note?’ kind of thing.”

Rawson is referring to the tendency among those who are unfamiliar with jazz to lump it into one of two categories—the sterile Muzak of elevators, doctor’s office lobbies and shopping malls, or the impenetrable free jazz appreciated largely by overzealous intellectuals.

But even in its most awkward phases of growth—whether it’s corporate radio suits pushing the mind-numbing, electric sax-driven “quiet storm” format, or ivory tower academics insisting upon mashing at their ivory keys in a most discordant manner—the true spirit of jazz is always laying in wait, ready to make yet another triumphant return. And both Wiley and Rawson say they can see the jazz world in the midst of just such a revival.

Riders On The Storm
“It seems like the early ’90s are back again,” Wiley says, name-checking A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Premier and the late J. Dilla, noting their proclivity for diving deep into record store bargain bins and excavating amazing jazz samples. “I think we’re back where people are looking for and needing creative music, but also something that’s soulful and—I hate the word ‘accessible’—but something that’s relatable.”

“The hip-hop generation has come of age,” Rawson says, observing that the most recent crop of jazz players did not develop their chops in a vacuum. “They are combing the music they grew up on and the popular culture that is important to them with their jazz stylings and jazz approach.”

In Chicago, the production collective THEMpeople and emcee Chance The Rapper are drawing upon the jazzy sounds of generations past and repackaging them for their mostly young audience.

Los Angeles is home to the bass virtuoso and producer Thundercat, who recently teamed with Flying Lotus on his electronic ode to the end of life, You’re Dead. SoCal is also the headquarters of Kamasi Washington, who delivered a number of rip-roaring saxophone solos on Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly—an album whose liner notes read like a cheat sheet on emergent jazz talent.

Over on the East Coast, Ghostface Killah—who made a name for himself in the legendary, jazz- and kung fu flick-sampling Wu Tang Clan—recently teamed up with Toronto post-boppers BADBADNOTGOOD for the Sour Soul LP.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the jazz-hip-hop connection is The Tonight Show—that bastion of mainstream American pop culture, broadcast into millions of living rooms all across the country five nights a week. It’s easy to forget that The Roots were a forward-thinking jazz and hip-hop fusion group long before they became Jimmy Fallon’s house band.

A number of the aforementioned artists have come to San Jose in recent years to perform at the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. Just last year, SJZ hosted two performances by Kamasi Washington—one at the historic California Theatre and one on the festival’s main stage—as well as a DJ set by Ali Shaeed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest at the Continental Bar, Lounge and Patio.

In yet another sign that younger, mainstream audiences are developing an appetite for jazz, Rawson points to the success Washington has seen since swinging through San Jose last summer. “I could never afford him now,” Rawson says with a laugh, noting that the saxophonist was well received at this year’s Coachella.

SAXY LADY: Alto saxophonist Claire Daily joins the Sonelius Smith Quartet at this year’s Rahsaanathon.

SAXY LADY: Alto saxophonist Claire Daily joins the Sonelius Smith Quartet at this year’s Rahsaanathon.

Jazz Never Left
If there is indeed a rising cohort of jazz musicians attracting younger listeners to the genre, it only makes sense, Rawson says: “Jazz is very comfortable reinventing itself. It’s sort of baked into the character of jazz. You’re always going to have artists in the genre that are experimenting and crossing over.”

Furthermore, Wiley observes, it is completely logical that the world of hip-hop would look to jazz, as Kendrick Lamar did on To Pimp A Butterfly. “There’s no way we could have any of the pop music that we like, any of the hip-hop music that we like without having jazz,” Wiley says. The way he sees it, just about every serious musician has necessarily drawn inspiration from the great jazz players and singers. “Every generation of rapper comes up talking about jazz. Every generation of soul singer talks about jazz.”

And after all, jazz’s ultimate return to cool might just be fated. After all, the “cool cats” of the jazz world are responsible for codifying the colloquial definition of “cool” in the first place.

“There’s always that resurgence,” Wiley says of the rolling jazz revival waves, perpetually lurking on the horizon. “There’s always the search for something truly nurturing and real. It’s always here, it’s always brewing.”

There was a time when jazz was the popular music of the day. Jazz provided the soundtrack to the Roaring Twenties and followed Americans into basement speakeasies.

Big band jazz gave way to funk, soul and R&B, while self-taught bluesmen of the rural south—guitarists like Leadbelly and Muddy Waters—inspired kids to pick up guitars and hack together a little something we now call rock & roll.

Patron Saint
In 1957, right around the time Elvis Presley, was launching his career with the iconic film, Jailhouse Rock, Rahsaan Roland Kirk was embarking on his own professional musical odyssey.

The blind multi-instrumentalist would eventually become known for his progressive style, boundary-pushing performances—which involved playing three specially modified saxophones simultaneously—and his cosmic philosophies that at times recall the Afrofuturism of Sun Ra.

Effortlessly hip and fully committed to his art, Kirk is the patron saint of Café Stritch. Though an honorific for a man who passed away nearly 40 years ago, it is a title that Maxwell Borkenhagen, artistic director of Café Stritch, takes quite seriously.

“For me, in general it’s about trying to redefine jazz for my generation,” Borkenhagen says.

Like Wiley and Rawson, Borkenhagen is all too familiar with the misconceptions held by so many uninitiated. “There is this tragic association among young people who really don’t know about jazz,” he says, referring to those who conflate the sprawling world of jazz with one or two self-indulgent, niche subgenres. “For me, there is a line connecting blues, jazz, rock & roll and punk. They’ve all been really rebellious forms. Rahsaan, in a way, is a perfect example of that. He wanted nothing to do with the mainstream.”

Borkenhagen grew up surrounded by jazz and the music of Kirk, whom his parents first lionized when they named their former restaurant “Eulipia”—a Kirk-coined word, taken from his song, “Theme for the Eulipions,” an ode to artists and all creative types.

And so, Café Stritch stands as an ode, not only to creativity and artistic integrity, but also to the rebellious through-line that runs from the earliest days of New Orleans brass up to the furious drumming of East Bay native Thomas Pridgen—who has performed with acts as diverse as psychedelic post-punks The Mars Volta, thrash metal revivalists Trash Talk and Wiley’s own rotating crew of Café Stritch regulars, Extra Nappy.

“Rahsaan was so true to his genuine creative impulses and he didn’t take shit from people,” Borkenhagen says, adding that jazz music depends on a particular vibe.

“I’ve observed time and time again where people might come in thinking jazz is lame or whatever, but then they experience the vibe. And that vibe—when you allow great musicians to do what they do—it’s going to make some converts. They’ll at least make the association that jazz is hip. People don’t necessarily remember that these days.”

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