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Artist Profiles

Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Classic Black Classical Musician

By Published: December 27, 2007
Michael Marcus, an adept at the technique of simultaneous horn playing, depicted Kirk as "very open and spiritual. "His inner ear could hear multiple voicings, Marcus testified, "and he could articulate that with his incredible embouchure ; more importantly, he observed, Kirk "had an enormous amount of soul. Believing Kirk deserves a place in the pantheon of jazz greats, Marcus extolled the virtues of "Many Blessings from The Inflated Tear (Atlantic, 1967): "It's frightening, it's incredible, it's monstrous, he glows; "it's definitely in the league of Coltrane or Sonny Rollins. George Braith, another two-horn tyro, was also inspired by Kirk: "He came on my job one night and blew me out with two horns [laughs] and I said, 'I'll never let that happen again!' Braith ran with the idea, developing custom mechanical extensions to expand his instrument's range and timbre. Kirk was interested and devised similar devices for his own horns. Both men played stritch, a rare, straight alto sax, though they never could concur on its exact definition.

Pianist Harold Mabern respected Kirk for his artistry, seriousness and "overall demeanor as a human being. He remains grateful to Kirk for seeing something in his playing early on, mentoring him and calling him for a few record dates. While Kirk loved Mabern's later records, the pianist also noted that he had a curious habit of taping over those tracks he didn't like: "If I had something on there that had, like, a rock-type beat to it, Mabern reported [citing Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder as an example], "he'd put some tape over that particular track so that it wouldn't play. It's not that he detested it, but he would skip over that and get to the next track.

Saxophonist/composer/arranger Benny Golson described Kirk's disposition as an example of "pleonexia, meaning "enough is never enough. "Because that's the way he was, Golson elaborated, "and that's really an inherent part of creativity; anybody who's truly creative, they're never really satisfied. One time Kirk called up Golson to play him a melody with the push-button tones of the telephone; the arranger promptly turned the idea into a television commercial for a phone company: "I built the whole orchestra around the telephone! Golson laughed. "He inspired that...He was always trying to discover new ways to do old things, extrapolations and that's what made him so interesting.

Drummer Roy Haynes considered Kirk "an exciting artist to play with and be around, citing his own record date Out of the Afternoon (Impulse!, 1962) as a career highpoint and emphasizing Kirk's considerable contribution to the session: "That is known all over the world, he said. "Listen to the music. He was a very exciting man and it was great to have played with him and to have him make a recording with me.

Trombonist Dick Griffin transcribed and arranged most of Kirk's music during the latter's prolific tenure at Atlantic Records. "Basically it was Rahsaan's ideas and we would sit and collaborate at the piano, he noted. "He was very unselfish when it came to stuff like that. Along with tambourine-maestro Joe Texidor, Griffin often served as Kirk's right-hand man, taking him out to record shops and gigs. "I listen to a lot of saxophone players and I've heard a lot of saxophone players on the music stand, he said, "but he stands out as someone who really, really had something special.


Producer Joel Dorn played a major role in Kirk's career, making fifteen albums with him and stewarding seven posthumous releases. Gushing hyperboles at the mere mention of Kirk, Dorn emphasizes that his true impact is ultimately untranslatable: "The records, they're all one-of-a-kind, they're great, [but] if you ever saw him live, there's no way to explain what he was; you can't explain it. Dorn stresses Kirk's deep roots in "Black classical music, claiming that even "at his most abstract, he left enough breadcrumbs so you could follow it back to where it came from.

On Dec. 10th, 2007, Saint Peter's Church will host what musical director/trombonist Steve Turré calls "more than a concert, a real tribute. The house band, consisting of Turré, Billy Harper (tenor), Vincent Herring (alto and soprano), Dave Valentin (flute), Ronnie Mathews (piano), Dion Parson (drums), Gerald Cannon (bass) and Akua Dixon (cello and vocals), will revive many of Kirk's classic melodies such as "Three For the Festival, "Serenade to a Cuckoo and "Bright Moments. Kirk's widow Dorthaan says she's been wanting to do this for several decades and has assembled a roster of important speakers that includes Barkan, Dorn, producer George Wein, Steve Robinson (of Radio Free Rahsaan), Mark Davis (of the radical Jazz and People's Movement) and poet Betty Neals. Multi-media presentations are slated to accompany the music and speeches. The event "started taking on a life of its own, Dorthaan Kirk muses; "there are spirits or something's out there that are pushing this thing as well.

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