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Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Classic Black Classical Musician

Tom Greenland By

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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.


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