Kirk, Rahsaan Roland

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Rahsaan Roland Kirk


Spectacle Did Not Mask Talent

Approval From Charlie Parker

Crossed Over at Newport

Selected discography


When Rahsaan Roland Kirk stood before an audience in the 1960s and seventies he resembled a fantastic, surreal, one-man band. A stritchan instrument resembling a dented blunderbusshung well below his knees and a quasi saxophone called a manzello was usually wrapped around his neck at the ready. A tenor saxophone with a flute conveniently placed in the bell added to the picture. Also hanging from Kirks neck was an arsenal of homemade instruments: a foot-long siren whistle held together with globs of tape, a song flute shortened so that it appeared to be a fat, black cigarwhich he played with his noseand a rectangular humming cube dubbed The Evil Box. Kirk played all three horns simultaneously, looking very much like a kid trying to eat three bananas at once. Making this weird spectacle all the more impressive was that Kirk was also blind.

Though he seemed gimmicky to some club owners, Kirk transcended his status as a freakish attraction and played with a virtuosity and searing emotionalism reminiscent of jazz greats John Coltrane and Sidney Bechet. When he put all three horns in his mouth, blowing like a whale, what spouted forth sometimes sounded like a bagpipers band skirling in a Fourth of July parade. In 1963 Time magazine reported that Roland Kirk meshes a thrumming beat, a fertile imagination and an impish humor to achieve an exciting union of the pagan and the modern spiritas if Pan were suddenly found piping merrily in a rush-hour subway. Anyone who can pop a childs plastic song flute into his right nostril during a flute solo and trill out a brief duet cant be all bad. In fact, this is an impossible feat for most musicians.

Spectacle Did Not Mask Talent

Kirk was a self-taught musician and a self-described progressive jazz musician and a humorist. When he laid aside the stritchforerunner of the alto saxophoneand manzelloforerunner of the soprano saxophonethe whistle, and The Evil Box, his tenor solos were smooth, flowing and wild. When he played siren whistle solosby placing the whistles bell directly on the microphone and simultaneously blowing and humminghe produced an effect not unlike a room full of mumbling sleepers.

Blind from the age of two, Kirk reported in Ebony, I think a nurse put too much medicine in my eyes, and my mother didnt find out about it until too late. By age five he wanted to be a bugle boy at a camp where his parents were counselors. Kirks uncle played piano and Kirk would accompany him by tooting along on a water hose. By the time he was ten he had progressed

For the Record

Born Roland Kirk in 1936; died in 1977; married wife, Edith; children: Rory Stritch Kirk. Education: Attended the Ohio State School for the Blind.

Jazz instrumentalist. Joined Boyd Moore Band at age 15, Columbus, OH; played briefly with a rhythm and blues band in Texas; began recording in Chicago, c. 1960-62; played with Charles Mingus, New York City, c. 1962; played at Newport Jazz Festival, 1969. Invented the rokon whistle.

Awards: Down Beat awards from international jazz critics, 1961 and 1963.

to trumpet. Kirks doctor noticed how distended his cheeks were when he played, so he worried about Kirks eyes, and discouraged the youth from playing for two years. Kirk attended the Ohio State School for the Blind in Columbus. At 12 he took up the saxophone and clarinet. At 15 he was playing with Boyd Moores banda well-known combo in the Columbus area. Kirk played rhythm and blues and was billed as The Walking Blind Man. About that time he had a prophetic dream in which he was playing two instruments simultaneously. There followed a three year search for the sound. He told a music store proprietor in Columbus about the dream and the man took him to the stores basement, where he kept a few antique instruments. Kirk found a manzello there and began playing it, along with his tenor, in Boyd Moores band. The search, he said, was over. Later, at the same place, he found his stritch.

Approval From Charlie Parker

Moore quickly perceived Kirk as getting too modern and too far out, so Kirk and a drummer friend headed to Los Angeles. They were going to pedal there from Ohio on a tandem bicycle, but a nervous Mrs. Kirk persuaded them to take a bus. Kirk did not have much luck in Los Angeles, however, so he moved to Texas with a rhythm and blues band. When that band dissolved he headed back to Columbus via St. Louis. He went to hear sax legend Charlie Parker in St. Louis and sat way in the corner, playing along with Parkers version of Half Nelson on his plastic song flute. According to Sun Magazine contributor James D. Dilts, Parker heard him, and after finishing his set, approached Kirk and said, I can tell by the way you play on this little thing that youve got something, so keep it up.

In 1960 Kirk lit out for Chicago. There he made some records and found success, but he cut an odd figure in the studio. Down Beat magazines Don DeMicheal was on hand. When someone asked Kirk in the studio why he played the siren whistle, Kirk explained, I hear sirens in my head. DeMicheal later commented, I expected him at any moment to take out a bag of goofer dust and cast hexes on us all.

Crossed Over at Newport

In 1962 Kirk landed in New York City. It wasnt long before he came to the attention of leading jazz bassist Charlie Mingus; within a few weeks word was out that there was a new talent in town. After a stint with Mingus, Kirk went out on his own. At the Newport Jazz Festival during the summer of 1969 he broke through to the vast young white audience, while achieving major prominence within the black realm. Between songs he offered wry comments concerning LSD, making love, racism, politics and television. He was particularly vocal about the dearth of black musicians featured on U.S. television, and about the pilfering of black music by white culturewithout the establishment of proper credit.

Kirk invented a whistle called the rokon and had 45 instruments in his home. He added Rahsaan to his name because it occurred to him in a dream. I have no religion that you get out of books, Kirk told Dilts. I am not a Muslim. My whole religion has been in this dream religion. My life has been motivated by dreams. Kirks stylistic province comprised nearly every jazz idiom and genre from blues shouting to free form, though his roots seem thickest in the swing era. In 1974 he traveled with a huge gong, foghorn, and a whistle, which he used to silence an inattentive crowd. I want respect even if Im playing in a snake pit, he asserted to Don Delliquanti in People. Kirks loyal fans sensed his need to communicate from a sphere more noisy, but paradoxically, more ordered and lovely than their own.

Selected discography

Rip, Rig and Panic, Limelight, 1967.

Here Comes the Whistleman, Atlantic, 1967.

Left and Right, Atlantic, 1969.

Natural Black Inventions, Root Strata, Atlantic, 1971.

Blackness, Atlantic, 1972.

Bright Moments (live), 1973.

(With Jack McDuff, Joe Benjamin, and Arthur Taylor) Kirks Work (recorded 1961), Mercury, 1977.

(With Richard Wyands, Hank Jones, Art Davis, Wendell Marshall, and Charlie Persip) We Free Kings (recorded 1961), Mercury, reissued, 1986.

(With Ira Sullivan) Introducing Roland Kirk (recorded 1960), Chess, 1990.

1990 Rahsaan: The Complete Mercury Recordings of Roland Kirk (recorded 1961-65).

The Man Who Cried Fire, Night, 1991.

The EmArcy Jazz Series (reissue), Polygram.

Case of the 3-Sided Dream in Color, Atlantic.

The Inflated Tear, Atlantic.


Down Beat, May 23, 1963.

Ebony, May 1966.

New York Herald, May 27, 1962.

New York Times, April 3, 1971; May 30, 1971; July 7, 1973; December 16, 1990.

People, July 15, 1974.

Reporter, June 5, 1967.

Sun Magazine (Balitmore), April 30, 1967.

Time, August 9, 1963.

Village Voice, September 3, 1970; December 25, 1990.

Washington Post, April 29, 1970.

B. Kimberly Taylor