They say you can't catch lightning in a bottle, but don't tell the Borkenhagen family that, and don't tell Steve Turre.
The Borkenhagens own Cafe Stritch in downtown San Jose, where Turre -- a trombonist with the "Saturday Night Live" band -- performed last summer. The crowds grew nightly as word spread that some kind of elusive and electrifying music scene was underway on South First Street -- part house party, part revival meeting, part cosmic escapade.
"It was not a regular gig," remarked Turre, recalling the scene by phone from New York. Originally from the East Bay and long established as one of the jazz world's top players, he described the San Jose jazz club's "special vibe."
A year after those events, Cafe Stritch -- one of the stages for this weekend's 25th annual San Jose Jazz Summer Fest -- is a magnet for students, hipsters, tourists, business people, jazz hounds and locals who don't know the first thing about jazz. It's become a cultural hub in San Jose, a city not typically known for such things.
And Turre is returning Thursday through Saturday. He will repeat last summer's tribute to his early mentor, the late, legendary saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whose music "is about spirit and feeling and still has the power to move people," Turre said. Born Aug. 7, 1935, Kirk made albums with titles like "I Talk with the Spirits" and "Prepare Thyself to Deal with a Miracle."
One might call Cafe Stritch the Miracle on South First Street.
This weekend, cutting-edge performers -- bassist Charnett Moffett, percussionist and singer Pedrito Martinez and others -- will perform there in the afternoons as part of the Summer Fest, while the club's own second annual Rahsaanathon celebrates Kirk at night with Turre and other magnetic players, including saxophonist James Carter, a free spirit in the Kirk-ian tradition.
Cafe Stritch is a throwback jazz club, noisy and a little unruly, appealingly so. "I wanted to bring back the energy of the old clubs, where people aren't afraid to yell out, like if the band's really burning," said Maxwell Borkenhagen, the club's 25-year-old artistic director, who books the acts. "The first word that comes to mind is definitely 'dynamic.' From one night to the next, you never quite know what it's going to be like here."
Stritch might be likened to a British pub, South Bay-style; a steady hangout away from home and office for the regulars who line the bar and crowd the tables around the stage.
On a typical night, family elder Steve Borkenhagen -- Maxwell's father, who is 61 -- is at the door, seated on a high stool so he can see the musicians on stage while greeting customers. If there's a cover charge (usually there's not), he's likely to waive it for a cash-strapped 20-something; better that a young person should come in, check out the music, grab a plate of fries or a beer.
It's a no-pretense place with a long bar and scuffed hardwood floors. Hanging on the brick wall behind the bandstand is a funny-looking alto saxophone, known as a stritch: The club's namesake, it's the actual battered horn that Kirk once played, on loan from his widow, Dorthaan Kirk. It lends a mystique to the club, for sure. And because there's virtually no separation between the audience and performers on stage, the atmosphere can get combustible when the music starts to peak.
"The energy got so big I thought the room was just going to explode" during last summer's packed Kirk tribute, said Oakland-based jazz and blues singer Terrie Odabi, who performed with Turre and will do it again this week.
"Stritch -- it smells like jazz," said drummer Peppe Merolla, who leads the club's house band and regularly invites his famous New York friends to fly out and perform. "Every time we play a swing tune, I see somebody by the bar who just grabs a lady and starts dancing."
Here's the back story: Steve Borkenhagen -- his son Mike, 37, runs Stritch's business side and is the club's legal owner -- is a Santa Clara native and lifelong jazz fan who saw Kirk perform in the early 1970s at San Francisco's Keystone Korner. Borkenhagen was hooked by the musician's humor and invention -- Kirk often played three saxophones at once, in pulsating harmony -- and still regards him as "the most fearless player. For me, he's sort of the archetypal jazzman," said Borkenhagen.
In 1977, Borkenhagen and his wife, Kathleen, cofounded the Eulipia jazz club at 374 S. First St., where the present club stands. Named after Kirk's haunting "Theme for the Eulipians," about an imaginary race of creative beings, the club presented the cream of the jazz scene (e.g., saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson) and even a rising comic named Dana Carvey. Then in 1980, the Borkenhagens -- they're also foodies -- converted Eulipia into a white-linen restaurant, running it under that name for 30-plus years until March 2013, when the family returned it to its jazz roots, reopening as Cafe Stritch.
Asked to identify the club's most memorable moment of the 17 months since, Steve Borkenhagen cites a performance by poet Betty Neals. She had recorded "Theme for the Eulipions" with Kirk in 1976, and she intoned its verse at Cafe Stritch during the 2013 tribute to the saxophonist. Behind her, Turre and the band played Kirk's soulful melody, which is powerfully wistful yet somehow jubilant. The audience grew rapt. Here and there around the room, people were weeping.
Dorthaan Kirk, the saxophonist's widow, was there, having flown out from New Jersey where she works at WBGO, Newark's jazz station. She described the mood at Stritch -- she'll be back this week -- as "just unexplainable, one of those situations where, if you told people, they wouldn't believe you."
Neals, also coming back this week, "spun a web of mysticism" at the club, said Turre. "I love it there. I actually think it's the best thing going on in the Bay Area right now in terms of being true to the music. Of course, they've got Rahsaan's saxophone up there, and that puts a certain vibe on it. But it's not just that. The Borkenhagens are really good people. They love the music, and it all comes out in the wash. Their thing is growing."
2nd Annual Rahsaanathon
A Celebration of the Life and Music of Rahsaan Roland Kirk
When: Through Sunday, 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. nightly
Where: Cafe Stritch, 374 S. First St., San Jose
Who/how much: Claire Daly and Rah! Rah!, tonight, $15; Steve Turre and James Carter, Thursday-Saturday, $30; Peppe Merolla and Jeremy Pelt, Sunday, $10
San Jose Jazz
SUMMER Fest events
at Cafe Stritch
This year's festival takes place this weekend in downtown San Jose; Cafe Stritch is one of its venues.
When: Saturday and Sunday, noon-7 p.m.
Where: 374 S. First St., San Jose
Saturday performers: Noel Jewkes Quartet; Michael O'Neill Quintet with Kenny Washington; Ben Flocks Trio; Tim Lin and band
Sunday performers: Charnett Moffett with Jana Herzen; Marc Cary Focus Trio; Pedrito Martinez
Advance discounts: Through today: $55-$285; 408-288-7557, summerfest.sanjosejazz.org
Gate admission: $20 Friday, $25 Saturday, $25 Sunday; three-day passes $70 to $90; priority and VIP packages up to $320