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Lullaby of Birdland

Rob Mariani By

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The ceiling at Birdland was all acoustic tiles and very low. So low that when Sonny Payne played there with the Basie Band, he wasn't able to twirl his drumsticks over his head the way he did in other venues. The guys in the trumpet section had to stand up carefully so as not to bump their heads.

Monday nights were, of course, jam session nights, and that was when the musicians would come to sit in the gallery and hear what was new in town. One Monday night drummer Charlie Persip was leading the house band, and about midway through the second set (they played as many as four sets then, lasting well on into the wee hours), Charlie stepped out from behind his drum set and moved to the mic.

"I'd like to introduce a guest who is going to sit in with us tonight. Probably not too many of you have heard of him yet, but I think you will. And when I tell you that he plays two and three saxophones at once, you're probably going to think it's like a gimmick. That's what I thoughts until I heard him. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to New York, Mr. Roland Kirk!"

A large mountain of a man stood up from one of the front row tables. He had on a big fur hat and was draped in capes and saxophones. Charlie came down from the stand and led him up to the mike and we could tell then from the dark glasses and the tentative way he moved that he was blind.

Charlie counted off the tune, I forget what it was, and Kirk started to blow, and suddenly the quartet sounded like a big band. People in the audience were looking at each other in disbelief. The power of the sound that Roland Kirk was putting forth in that low ceilinged room with its intimate acoustics was almost too much to bear. It was thrilling the way watching a volcano erupt is thrilling, resonating deep down inside your chest. Charlie Persip was really right about this one: this was no gimmick.

When you came back up outside from Birdland, it was like swimming up to the surface from some deep oceanic pool of sound and sensations. The traffic seemed to move at a faster speed. Car horns startled you and made you jump. The air was thin and ticklish. Everyone had slightly different re-entry symptoms, but nobody came back up from Birdland quite the same as they'd gone down.


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