Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Classic Black Classical Musician


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Rahsaan Roland KirkAs the thirtieth anniversary of his passing (Dec. 5th, 1977) approaches, Rahsaan Roland Kirk remains a palpable presence and pervading influence, musically and personally. A complex man of seemingly paradoxical traits, he was a childlike prankster with old-soul wisdom, a self-touting egoist who humbly honored his musical forefathers, a tradition-bound futuristic pioneer, a highly combative man who'd walk that extra mile for a friend, a vaudevillian show-boater who took music more seriously than most—in sum, an unorthodox and ultimately uncategorizable original. In search of this man, I sought out some of the people who knew and associated with him.

Trumpeter Ted Curson once shared a building with Kirk off of Tompkins Square Park. Disgruntled with Kirk's habit of waking him at all hours to demonstrate new inventions (e.g., a flute fitted with a trumpet mouthpiece), Curson sought revenge: setting the alarm for 4:30 AM, he went to Kirk's door and knocked. The peephole opened, followed by, "Hey Ted, come on in! Considering his blindness, Curson still doesn't know how Kirk recognized him. He also marveled at Kirk's ability to go "everywhere without a seeing-eye dog. "He really stretched it out, Curson observed, "and it was always a pleasure to hear...he was always trying something with those horns.

Yusef Lateef described Kirk as "one of the creative icons of the last century and of our century, noting that "his contributions to culture speak for themselves...of evolution, sincerity and creativity. He recalled visiting Kirk in New Jersey: "He didn't have enough fingers to play the sounds he wanted to hear on the piano, so I suggested that he put a pencil in his mouth and use that to get what he wanted. And he did. I thought that was quite interesting and creative; he utilized what he had to create.

Todd Barkan, record producer and former proprietor of the Keystone Korner in San Francisco, was eight when he fell under Kirk's spell in Columbus, Ohio; turning around in his bus seat, he gaped at eighteen year-old "Ronnie sitting in the back, jamming along to the rhythm of the motor. They shared a close relationship over the years. "Rahsaan...made the supernatural a lot more of a daily occurrence for us, states Barkan; "although my dear friend and mentor has been "gone for thirty years, he continues to visit me in my dreams to get on my case to "stop jivin' and start divin,' and his music still speaks to us in a way that never fails to take our hearts out dancing.

Percussionist Charli Persip, who played on We Free Kings (Mercury, 1961), stated that Kirk wanted to be respected for his musicality and artistry and "always objected to being considered a circus. He was "very racially motivated, very involved in the problem of Black people in America, Persip noted. Although he described Kirk as "kind of a loner who "carried a lot of baggage, Persip was quick to point out that "it didn't keep him from being an extremely nice guy. Pianist Richard Wyands, who also recorded on Kings, noted that Kirk "opened his eyes to a lot of things musically, explaining that "he had a different way of expressing himself, verbally and musically.


Multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan first met Kirk when, commencing the final set of a gig, he heard, "Ira Sullivan? It's Roland Kirk! I'm coming up to play with you! followed by the strange vision of a heavily-laden marauder storming the gangplank to the loft-level stage. Sullivan introduced Kirk to Joe Segal of Chicago's Jazz Showcase, leading to his first major release, Introducing Roland Kirk (Argo, 1960). He was "one of the strongest men I knew, says Sullivan, with "incredible stamina and a "get-up-and-go attitude; I never saw him drug or tired. He remembers a rowboat outing when Kirk demanded the oars and whipped up enough speed to rival a motorboat or another time when Kirk played Dvorák's "New World Symphony with his left-hand sax, simultaneously rendering "Sentimental Journey with his right-hand clarinet. He could "see more than the rest of us, raves Sullivan; "he didn't operate like a blind man.

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.

Selected Discography

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Return of the 5,000 Lb. Man (Warner Bros., 1976)

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bright Moments (Atlantic, 1973)

Roland Kirk, Volunteered Slavery (Atlantic/Rhino, 1968)

Roland Kirk, The Inflated Tear (Atlantic/Rhino, 1967)

Roland Kirk, Rip, Rag and Panic (Limelight/Mercury, 1965)

Roland Kirk, We Free Kings (Mercury/Verve, 1961)

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