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Roland Kirk: Here Comes The Whistleman

Roland Kirk: Here Comes The Whistleman
Duncan Heining By

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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.

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