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Remembering the Jazz Scene at the Old Eulipia Cafe – John Randolph Bennett

Remembering the Jazz Scene at the Old Eulipia Cafe

I was pleased to read this week that the Eulipia Cafe in downtown San Jose is being reincarnated as a jazz club, which is how the restaurant began. The name has changed: the new cafe will be called Cafe Stritch. A stritch is an alto saxophone without a curved bell. Jazz horn player Rahsaan Roland Kirk used to play one. He also coined the term Eulipia.

When the Eulipia opened in the late 70’s, there was nothing like it in San Jose. There were certainly no other jazz clubs. Downtown San Jose was the business district of an old farming town that had boomed a bit. It hadn’t yet become anything like the bustling, more cosmopolitan place it is now.

But there on First Street, next to an avantgarde cinema, was Eulipia, a jazz club that booked major acts. What a gift.

We were teenagers. The wait staff welcomed us anyway. We ordered enormous goblets of hot chocolate. They were delicious.

The first time we went there was a Friday or Saturday night. We heard Mel Martin and his band Listen. Susan Muscarella, who would later found the Jazzschool in Berkeley, was on piano. Her performance thrilled me. I wanted to be able to play like that: to swing, to comp, to dash off those dazzling runs.

We bought Mel’s album, Growing, which featured a tune called “King Kong’s Honkey Tonk and Space Tango.” To my young ears, accustomed to classical music, a little pop, and a little country, it was wild. The music blared. It honked. It screeched and thumped. The spirit of this music could roar.

I can date that Mel Martin concert pretty easily, because it was either the next night or the next weekend that I attended my second jazz concert: Sonny Rollins, Donald Byrd, and Tony Williams at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. That performance ended up being recorded and issued as Don’t Stop the Carnival, one of Sonny’s few live albums from the sixties and seventies. The liner notes on “Don’t Stop the Carnival” say it was recorded on April 13-15, 1978, so that first trip to Eulipia must also have been in early April 1978.

Over the years, we heard other great players, including John Handy (with Pharoah Sanders, too, that night, as I recall), Richie Cole, and Phil Woods (I know we saw him at Keystone Korner in SF, but I think we also heard him at Eulipia, as well). I remember enjoying a piano trio led by a woman named Martha Young, who was somehow related to Lester Young (she might have been his niece). Unfortunately, I can’t find anything about her online.

The staff at Eulipia were always welcoming. I’m grateful to them for booking these acts and not minding that some teenagers are taking up some of the tables. I’ve lost track of some of our friends from those days, but Hafez is now a Professor of World Cultures in Music at San Francisco State. His new album Post-Chromodal Out! is soulful and spritely in an Ornette Coleman kind of way.

My twin brother went on to play tenor and soprano saxophone. He’s studied under Bruce Ackley of the Rova Quartet and Steve Lacy, and is studying composition now in Brooklyn.

I don’t play music any more, but I listen to jazz every day. And oddly enough, I never feel more at home than I do in a small club with a good band on stage that’s really cooking.

So thank you, Eulipia of old, and welcome Stritch. Let the music play on.

Here’s a track from Mel Martin’s album, Growing: