Roland Kirk: Here Comes The Whistleman

Duncan Heining By

Sign in to view read count
This December, it will be thirty-nine years since Rahsaan Roland Kirk split the scene for good. He was forty-one and about two-thirds of that short life span had been spent as a professional musician. He might not have been around long but he left behind a powerful legacy that may have no parallel in jazz or any other modern music.

He might not have courted controversy but somehow it kept finding him. For some critics and musicians, he was a joke—British pianist/critic Steve Race called him the "Charlie Caroli of Jazz," after a circus performer who'd played two saxophones simultaneously. There are still those who think that way but their numbers dwindle and, nearly forty years later, Rah is acknowledged as a unique artist.

Consider this—a short but hefty black guy wearing wrap-around shades. The dark glasses are no affectation but indicate that he's sightless—he hated the word "blind." Round his neck hang a variety of instruments—a tenor sax and two other strange reed instruments, a flute sticking out the bell of the tenor, maybe a clarinet and bells, whistles and all manner of strange things. He's the most surreal sight you've ever seen. But words like 'circus' or 'vaudeville' are only insults in the truly blind, the Steve Races of the jazz world.

Call him a multi-instrumentalist, if that's the only term you've got for a guy who can play three saxophones or two flutes or clarinet and flute or tenor and piano at the same time. Better to call him, as German critic Joachim Berendt did in 1960, "a street musician' with all the wild, untutored qualities that brings to mind but coupled with 'the subtlety of a modern jazz man."

He wasn't born "Roland" at all but "Ronald" and "Rahsaan" was a name he gave himself around 1970. He came into the world in Columbus, Ohio. He must have been weird for Ohio but then some would say he was weird for anywhere. By the age of two he was sightless, putting this down much later to a nurse who 'put too much medicine in my eyes and my mother didn't find out about it too late.'

Music was there from the start. Joel Dorn, a close friend and producer of all his records for Atlantic and Warners, told how Rahsaan's first instrument was a garden hose into which he'd made holes for the notes. From hose, he graduated to bugle but stopped playing it on medical advice. Apparently, his doctor saw him play the instrument with cheeks distended and thought it could be bad for his eyes! But it was from such strange beginnings that Kirk's unique musical would be formed.

As Joel Dorn explained, "If you start on a hose and then you play the bugle at camp and then your uncle plays boogie-woogie piano and you play a beat-up saxophone somebody got for you and then you start having dreams of all kinds of strange shit. Look where you end up."

During his teens, Kirk studied at the Ohio State School For The Blind but by the age of fifteen he was already out on the road playing R&B on weekends with Boyd Moore's band. Dorn told me a story told to him by saxophonist Hank Crawford. "He would be like this 14 year-old blind kid playing two horns at once. They would bring him out and he would tear the joint up. Hank saw him in Memphis or Nashville and he said he was unbelievable when he was a kid. Now they had him doing all kinds of goofy stuff but he was playing the two horns and he was playing the shit out of them. He was an original from the beginning."

Three things stand out with Kirk. Firstly, there's the three horn business. For fans who got what he was about, this was no gimmick but a means of realising a huge musical conception. That's the second thing. In that you found the blues, a love of stride piano and early jazz and he certainly had an ear for a nice pop tune. But his vision was much wider than most of his contemporaries. According to Dorn, he was also hugely knowledgeable about classical music. Pieces by Saint-Saens, Hindemith, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Villa-Lobos would all feature on his albums over the years, alongside standards, pop songs and original compositions. Rahsaan's conception went beyond jazz and for that reason, he preferred the term 'Black Classical Music.' If that rings bells with more recent comments made by Wynton Marsalis, just ponder the irony that there was no space for Rah in Ken Burns' film, on which Marsalis collaborated.

By the early sixties, Rah was attracting attention. He'd won a couple of polls, albeit both in the 'miscellaneous instrument' categories. The first two years of the decade were pretty packed for the young musician. He'd already had one album, Triple Threat, issued in the fifties but between 1960-2 Kirk released albums on Argo, Prestige and his first two records for Mercury, where he was to stay for four years. During this time he'd got his own quartet, had played with drummer Roy Haynes' group and had spent three months with Charlie Mingus. It might have been just a few months but the time with Mingus was to prove a lasting influence on Kirk musically and conceptually—and also politically. His music, already full of great depth and richness, became somehow grander in its scope, fired with similar emotions of love and rage to the work of his erstwhile bassist boss.

His time with Mercury was a very positive one and as well as making his own albums, he recorded with both Quincy Jones' and Benny Golson's orchestras and with the British saxophonist, Tubby Hayes. But in truth, the records he made for the label were a mixed bag. We Free Kings, his first for Mercury, and the even better Rip Rig And Panic were amongst the best of his career but at times there was a sense that no-one really knew what to do with his talent—perhaps not even Rah himself. The stuff he did with Jones was actually pretty dire and the orchestral album he made in his own right, Slightly Latin, did not do him justice. But at any moment, even on sub-standard material, Kirk would do something amazing. For that reason, if for no other, there is no Roland Kirk record one wouldn't want in a collection.

Just as he was gaining recognition, he was far from fulfilling his potential. Audiences loved him. He blew the crowd at Newport away in 1962, just as he would again in '68. But somehow the jibes kept coming. Some people seemed to think he ought to be doing things the way Miles or 'Trane or Rollins did. But other musicians dug him. He and Coltrane jammed together and Miles was one of the first to call the hospital when Rah had his stroke in 1975. It was just that those that had the pull and the weight, didn't, wouldn't and couldn't take him seriously. And it hurt, just as the patronising insensitivity that some people showed towards his sightlessness caused him frustration. One time, he was dropped from a spot on the Jackie Gleason Show because the network's lawyers were worried he might hurt himself! Kirk offered to provide his own insurance but the gig went to King Curtis instead.

Fame, fortune and recognition were more easily found in Europe and following his first visit to the Ronnie Scott Club in 1963, he was to have a significant impact on the British scene. France was at least as welcoming and he was a regular festival attraction on the continent. Apparently, he even played Basildon in Essex (an irony to British fans, though it's meaning may escape non-British readers!).

Kirk loved Ronnie Scott's Club. He even dedicated a tune to Ronnie and his business partner Peter King—"On The Corner Of King And Scott Streets." They introduced Rahsaan to British audiences and a close personal relationship would develop between him and King and Scott. Over the years, Rah played Ronnie's maybe five or six times, twice in the Old Place in Gerrard Street and three or four times in its current Dean Street home. In 2002, I asked Pete King how they first decided to book him for the club. "I suppose in a way like anybody else we went for the three saxophone business. Obviously, here was a commercial jazz attraction. He played three saxophones at once, so we thought, 'Let's get him in.'" But as King pointed out, it was Rah's talent as a musician and entertainer that would make him a regular at the club. "The thing was for musicians to enjoy being here and playing for English audiences and that's why he kept coming back."

I asked King, if they'd ever found him difficult. He told me that Kirk seemed a bit suspicious at first.

"People must take on board that he was a blind Negro and back down the line with America's history of the coloured situation, it couldn't have been very good for him. The first visit, being blind and black, he asked to be paid every night. That wasn't very easy for us because you had to order dollars from the bank. We managed to get around that and after two or three nights he realised what he was dealing with Ronnie and I and he said I don't want any more money until the end of the gig."

From that point on he would stay with King at his home in Mill Hill and a friendship was born that would last to the end of Rah's life. Kirk was an unusually loyal friend to the club, as King explained,

"There comes a period of time running a club, when you run into trouble. The thing about Roland was, say for instance Stan Getz was here and he was playing up, which was nothing unusual, you'd just say, 'Forget it. Go home.' Then, you'd phone up Roland and he'd be ready to get on the next plane and come over. Things like that were absolutely fabulous." Over the years pop stars would come up to catch Rah at the club. Stevie Wonder would bring his whole entourage whenever their UK visits coincided and once at the Old Place, the Beatles turned up. King recalls the time with typically wry humour, "I think it done 'em good to see Roland Kirk. Frightened the shit out of them. Showed 'em what they had to contend with professionally."

Kirk's performances at Ronnie's are the stuff of legend, with Rah doling out whistles to the crowd for "Here Comes The Whistleman" or leading the audience like the Pied Piper out into Frith Street. It was the time the club was raided by the Metropolitan Police—a liquor licencing issue, not a drug bust—that provides the most famous 'Rah at Ronnie's' story. "Back then you had to be a member to be able to buy a drink," King told me. "You just couldn't run a place under those circumstances. So, we used to turn a blind eye and hope we didn't get busted. Anyway, Roland was on the stand and the audience were blowing these whistles and the boys in blue came trooping in. The Commissioner in charge said to us, 'Would you ask him to stop playing?' So, Ronnie went up and said, 'Roland, would you stop playing? We've got a problem here.' He kept on playing. Roland on that stand and all this noise and the boys in blue come bobbing in. It was fantastic. Ronnie and I just stood there and pissed ourselves laughing. It was like bloody Gilbert and Sullivan!"

Another story was told me by trombonist and broadcaster Campbell Burnap. One night the jazz critic of The Daily Sketch took Fergus Cashin, the paper's notorious, hell-raising drama critic to see Kirk at Ronnie's. At one point, Cashin, drunk as a lord, started barracking Kirk. Ronnie Scott told him to shut up, "Have some respect, Fergus, don't you know he's blind." For once, Cashin was mortified and offered to buy Rah a drink in the break. Kirk pointed his way along the top shelf of the bar and Chartreuse was followed by Curacao, Galliano and by more coloured liqueurs, as the barman added them to the glass. It cost over a fiver—a huge amount for a drink in the Sixties. Cashin's mouth fell open, as Kirk put the glass to his lips— "Good Christ man. If that's what you drink, no wonder you're fecking blind!"

During the early-to mid-sixties, there was also a growing sense amongst British musicians of wanting to develop a jazz that acknowledged its African-American origins but had its own British identity. It's ironic that one of the way-marks should come from an African-American like Kirk.

Some years ago, I spoke with Jon Hiseman, who jammed with Kirk on several occasions and asked what made Kirk so special in his eyes.

"I think he was popular with audiences because he was not a bebop man," Hiseman suggested, adding that, for him, this style of jazz, however skilled, helped alienate a large part of the audience, taking a major music on the world scene and "rushing it into obscurity."

"Ultimately, it was very boring hearing people doing exercises over chords. Roland never played those things. He played solos that were allied to the tunes. They were individual compositions that fitted the ambience of the piece perfectly. I think we learnt a lesson from that, Barbara Thompson and I, and employed the principle for the rest of our careers. Any solos had to be subservient to what was special in the tune."

I asked Hiseman if he felt that Kirk represented an alternative route to the more mainstream American approach.

"You've put your finger absolutely on it. If you're a grammar school boy from South London like me, you have the chance of taking somebody who turns you on and becoming a clone of them or saying, 'I like this is music very much but this is not my ethnic background, so I'll simply do my thing.' It was what I did, what Barbara did and it's what a lot of young guys here did. The point is that in America, they had the Tanglewoods. They said this is what you do and this is how you do it. They felt they were passing on a heritage but what they did was produce a lot of clones and they still are."

If any one UK musician was responsible for turning a lot of young rock fans onto Rah, then it has to be Ian Anderson. In an interview for this article in 2002, Anderson made a similar point to Jon Hiseman about Kirk's contribution to fledgling UK musicians.

"It's important to leave space in the music and to have some transparency there," he said. "I think that's what Roland Kirk understood, that you didn't have to be piling on the pressure all the way through. I just felt he had a lot of change of pace about him, a natural sense of drama and the ability to get a little crazy one minute and be unafraid to be almost pastoral in his ability to recognise open spaces. That's what I think is vital about music and is a real good object lesson for any musician." That lesson was particularly apparent in Jethro Tull's version of Kirk's "Serenade to a Cuckoo" from the This Was... album. Anderson told me he had already been utilising a similar vocalised approach to flute-playing, when he came across Kirk's music.

"It's a very natural thing to integrate the human voice with something like the flute. When I first heard Roland Kirk, it was like hearing somebody who'd explored and perfected a technique that I was just familiar with in the last two months. It was a little step-up that first involvement with Roland Kirk's music. I'd always acknowledge the debt for that piece of music and how he reinforced my idea that the flute could be an instrument that didn't have to be a classical instrument or played in Irish folk music but one that could be played with jazz or blues or even rock music."

Saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith always acknowledged his debt to Kirk in a similar way, pointing out that he was never influenced by Rah stylistically but that the idea of playing two saxophones simultaneously was both liberating and inspirational. In many ways that's what Rah was to musicians here in Europe. He was an inspiration, someone who said you don't have to do it like the beboppers or the free guys or his way. You could do it your own way with validity and doing it to entertain your audience was okay too.

For Pete King, Rah's impact on the British jazz scene stemmed from two specific sources. Firstly, he was a very fine tenor player. "For me, when he was just playing straightforward tenor saxophone, he was one of the best players I ever heard," King told me. "He was in that older category like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster or Don Byas. He was absolutely wonderful." And the second reason? "The fact that he played three saxophones at once. Nobody could visualise how anybody could play two instruments that good at once. People were looking for things (like that) in those days."

Joel Dorn had very strong views on why Kirk's reception in Europe was so much stronger than it was at home. "In the States, the jazz community is very dogmatic and orthodox. European audiences, whether in the UK or on the Continent, are much more cultured than the USA. Culture here is barely being defined. We're still a collection of tribes in conflict. It was only forty years ago that black and white people started going to the same shows. So, they were separate cultures here. America is culturally primitive. When you play in Europe there's hundreds of years of culture. People look at other people's cultures differently. Here, he was black guy that played a saxophone. In Europe, he was an artist."

After nine albums for Mercury, Kirk recorded Here Comes The Whistleman in 1965 with Joel Dorn for Atlantic and, then in 1967, Now Please Don't you Cry, Beautiful Edith with producer Creed Taylor for Verve. Dorn told me, "He was auditioning producers. I think I won because Creed ...I don't think he found Creed to be a guy he could do what he really wanted to do with over the long haul. Creed's a guy who takes you and puts you into his situation. I record people for what they do and I think he felt more comfortable with that." It was the beginning of a long and creative partnership.

Received wisdom about Rah is that the Mercury period plus the earlier Atlantics represent prime Kirk. The view many hold is that the later stuff was tailored to appeal to the young rock audience and studio trickery was more in evidence than the real Roland Kirk. The Case Of The 3 Sided Dream In Audio Color comes in for particular scorn and as for the post-stroke records—in particular Boogie-Woogie String Along For Real and Kirkatron—these were seen as being motivated more by a need to meet hospital bills than creative purpose.

The Inflated Tear and Volunteered Slaverycertainly equal anything that Kirk recorded for Mercury. If the former is his most concise and complete musical statement, the latter is my personal favourite as it epitomises both "Kirk the musician" and "Kirk the performance artist." A strong case can also be made for Blacknuss from 1972. Aside from the title track, one other Kirk original and a classic version of the spiritual "Old Rugged Cross," Kirk chose pop songs mainly from black artists such as Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Smokey Robinson. There is an economy to Blacknuss that invites the listener from outside jazz inside but it was also a cultural statement. For Kirk, there could and should be no hierarchy in music between classical, folk, blues, jazz or pop. It also contains the best version of "Ain't No Sunshine" and an amazing "What's Going On/Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)." It's the kind of record King Curtis might have made but, Live at the Filmore excepted, never quite did.

These three may be the best of the Atlantic or later records for Warners. However, I would make a case for "Theme For The Eulipions" (from Return Of The 5000lb Man) and "Freaks For The Festival" (from The Case of the 3 Sided Dream). Both are amongst my favourite Kirk tracks. Joel Dorn argued that the records they made together were and are simply non pareil.

For Dorn, The Case Of The 3 Sided Dream was Rah's Sergeant Pepper. As to the idea that Kirk was just paying the bills here, nothing I've read or heard would support the notion that Kirk would've allowed himself to be manipulated by record industry interests. And as for the need to pay bills at the end of his life, his second wife Dorthaan has pointed out that Rah was a very good business man and actually bartered with the hospital to get the price down! But once again, controversy still seems to follow him.

The relationship with the Rock audience was actually very complex. Rah was taken up by kids into Airplane, the Mothers and the Dead because they got where he was at. If Rah had little time for most rock bands—an opinion he voiced whenever he had the chance—he certainly respected Frank Zappa and even jammed with the Mothers one time. He also got on well with Captain Beefheart, a case of two like-minded souls perhaps.

Unlike some in the jazz world, the rock audience accepted the whole package with Kirk. The weirdness was a bonus but this surreal, street performer, as wild and untamed as you could get, was playing music in a way that really communicated. It was more as if his time had come. The experimentation with strange instruments, three horns and all that now began to mix with all the possibilities that the studio could provide. And that was what Dorn brought to the party.

As Dorn put it, "By the time we really got rolling in terms of him bringing in the music and him letting me make the record, we got to things like The Case of the Three-sided Dream. Gaining his trust and then being able to make his records better other than just collections of songs where the recorded medium better reflected who he was and what he was about and we started to get some very interesting records. He was interesting just playing but when the medium became part of what he did and he started to understand what you could do with records, that's when all the layers started coming in and that was exciting." Here was Roland Kirk as a complete cultural statement. The way jazz and its musicians had been treated in the USA angered and frustrated him and his music reflected that anger but also his deep respect and love for African-American music in all its forms. He was in some ways the epitome of the jazz tradition, drawing upon its earliest history and vaudeville connections, its roots in the blues and gospel and its bebop years but also its connection to and influence upon pop music. His work was an act of celebration and recovery and of pride, as far removed from the ossification of jazz and African-American tradition that we have heard represented by the Murray-Crouch-Marsalis axis as is possible. That is also part of his legacy, one which might justly be described as his own distinctive cultural politics. If you don't believe me, just listen to "Old Rugged Cross" and "Blacknuss."

Kirk suffered a stroke in 1975. Four months later, the 'man who played three horns,' as Downbeat had dubbed him in 1960, was back playing tenor sax with one hand. And not only playing, but in the opinion of fellow musicians like Anthony Braxton, John Stubblefield and Pharoah Sanders, doing better with one hand than most players could with two. The 'recovery' was short-lived. Dogged now by kidney problems, high blood pressure and heart disease, even Kirk's iron will and determination could not overcome a failing constitution.

For a man, who had let nothing stand in his way—not sightlessness, not racism, not critical indifference or cheap shots—those last months in a wheelchair must have been hard but he never gave in. It was about still making music. He believed he'd die if he stopped playing and kept on doing so until a second stroke proved too much for his now frail, weakened body.

At the height of punk rock, Melody Maker devoted a full page to his obituary. Chris Welch, a long-time fan, reminded readers (and perhaps instructed a few new ones) of a talent who transcended charges of gimmickry and who couldn't help but communicate. Early jibes by the likes of Steve Race were dismissed and a remarkable innovator and artist emerged. As Joel Dorn said to me, "The thing that made it unbelievable and magical was that it was a human that did it. You don't have to make somebody into a mystical figure. If we all had super powers what's the big deal with Superman punching a boulder. People like 'Trane and Rahsaan didn't have super powers—they just went further."

I asked Pete King for his most abiding memory of Roland. His eyes got a faraway look. "Personally? Hearing him play a ballad with one hand when he'd had his stroke. Tremendously big sound and what he played with that one hand was as much as most of them could play with two. It brought tears to my eyes." King paused for a moment and added, "He was a very, very close friend."

This is an amended version of an article originally published in Jazzwise in 2002.

Post a comment



Shop Amazon



Read Ulysses Owens: Big Band, Big Sound
Read Nathaniel Cross: Deep Vibrations
Read Meet Gabrielle Cavassa

All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded albums and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, limited reopenings and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary step that will help musicians and venues now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the sticky footer ad). Thank you!

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.