Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Kirk, Rahsaan Roland (Theodore)

Saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk was one of the more agile reed players of his generation. Blind from youth, he created a universe of sound that was completely original and his own. Known for playing multiple reed instruments at once, he parlayed this niche into a brief but important stint with bassist Charles Mingus, and some success as a leader. His approach of performing with multiple reeds has been emulated by several contemporary saxophonists including Jeff Coffin and Courtney Pine. Kirk also popularized the practice of circular breathing, which enabled him to play notes for long periods of time without stopping.

Ronald Theodore Kirk was born on August 7th, 1935 in Columbus, Ohio. Kirk was not born blind was without sight by the time he was two years old. Like pianist Art Tatum before him, he attended the Ohio State School for the Blind, which offered musical training to its wards. He experimented there with a wide array of instruments, from the bugle to the trumpet and the clarinet.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk

In his teenage years, Kirk had graduated to the tenor saxophone and was soon playing in rhythm-and-blues bands around the Columbus area. Kirk developed his style of playing multiple reeds by chance. On one occasion, he came into possession of two older-model saxophones, which had been used at the turn of the century in Spain. Named the stritch and the manzello, their sounds resembled soprano and alto saxophones. With the aid of some rubber bands and slight alterations to the horns, Kirk was able to use alternate fingerings and combine them with the tenor saxophone to achieve unique three voice harmonies. At times the pitches could be out of tune slightly but Kirk still managed to create a remarkable sound which was at that time as yet unheard in jazz.

In 1956, Kirk recorded his debut album for King Records, entitled Triple Threat. While the recording went largely unnoticed, it is an important document of the development of his sound. In the early 1960s, Kirk worked around Louisville, Kentucky before going into the studio to record his second album, Soul Station.

In 1961, Kirk recorded and released We Three Kings for Verve Records. Featured on this recording were pianist Hank Jones, drummer Charlie Persip, and bassist Wendell Marshall. Kirk's playing of flutes, whistles, and saxophones can be heard on the song “You Did It, You Did It." Kirk toured Europe later that year, which helped to expand his audience. It also brought him to the attention of bassist Charles Mingus, with whom he would spend the next four months.

Kirk appeared on Mingus’s 1961 album Oh Yeah!, which was released on Atlantic Records. It featured such songs as “Ecclusiastics," and “Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me," and “Eat That Chicken." Mingus's personnel on the session included his regular drummer Dannie Richmond and tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin.

Kirk also recorded a memorable solo album in 1961, Kirk’s Work, which was released on Prestige Records. In 1962, he can be heard performing a memorable flute solo on Quincy Jones' album Big Band Bossa Nova. Kirk was featured on the song “Soul Bossa Nova,” which tapped into the fad for the elegant Brazilian style of jazz in the United States. The song's cool ambience, with Kirk on board, can also be heard in the 1995 film Austin Powers.

In 1964, Kirk recorded Roland Kirk Meets the Benny Golson Orchestra with the tenor saxophonist and bandleader for Mercury Records. Kirk also recorded with alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt in 1964 for his album Loose Walk. Kirk hooked up with Quincy Jones again for The Mancini Song Book, which was released on Mercury Records. Kirk also released a flute album in 1964 called I Talk with the Spirits, which demonstrated that his artistry extended beyond the saxophone.

In 1965, Kirk released his album Rip, Rig, Panic for Verve Records. The musicians on the recording were pianist Jaki Byard, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Elvin Jones. Kirk's deep harmonic explorations, drawn from his ever-evolving collection of reed instruments, can be heard on the song “Slippery, Hippery, Flippery." In 1967, Kirk recorded and released the album Now Please Don’t You Cry Beautiful Edith. It featured his take on the Burt Bachrach and Hal David song from the 1966 hit film “Alfie." In 1969, Kirk released “Ain’t No Sunshine." In 1973, Kirk redeemed himself stylistically and commercially with the release of his Atlantic album Bright Moments. The title track was minor hit that year, with Kirk vocalizing such lines as, “Bright moments is like eating your last pork chop in London, England.” The album was recorded live at the Keystone Club in San Francisco. Kirk released several other compelling albums including 1975's The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color.

Unfortunately, Kirk’s health went into rapid decline as the 1970s progressed. He suffered a stroke in 1975, which left one side of his body paralyzed. Amazingly, Kirk managed to perform and record at almost the same pace as before his stroke. He recorded several albums and appeared at festivals before he suffered a second stroke and died on December 5th, 1977.

Kirk's legacy lives on amongst the contemporary saxophonists who have adopted his approaches and techniques. Charles Mingus said of Kirk, “This man is what jazz is all about. He’s real.” In the end, these words truly sum up the work of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Although not always understood by the public and critics, his music left an enduring, and still compelling, mark.

Select Discography

as Roland Kirk/Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Kirk’s Work (Prestige, 1961) We Free Kings (Mercury, 1961) Roland Kirk Meets the Benny Golson Orchestra (Mercury, 1964) Now Please Don’t You Cry Beautiful Edith (Verve, 1967) Volunteered Slavery (Atlantic, 1968) Blacknuss (Atlantic, 1971) The Return of 5000 Lb. Man (Warner, 1975)

with Charles Mingus

Oh Yeah! (Atlantic, 1961)

with Quincy Jones

Big Band Bossa Nova (Mercury, 1962) The Mancini Song Book (Mercury, 1964)

Contributor: Jared Pauley