The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk
by John Kruth
Welcome Rain, 404 pages, $28.95
Reviewed by Don Rose
There was always the initial suspicion that this stocky black dude, Roland Kirk, honking away on three saxophones at once, his sightless eyes covered by oversized black shades, was some kind of carnival act. But anybody with even one open ear was quickly disabused of the idea. The man made music. Serious, creative, innovative music. The difference was he was a whole saxophone section all by himself.
He called it "black classical music"—one of the first people to popularize the term. But whether you use that phrase or just plain old "jazz," his contribution was immense and undeniable. Testimonial after testimonial to his brilliance fills these pages, with unending, laudatory comments from his peers—trombonist Steve Turre at the forefront—as well as critics and producers.
He was also a genuine, one-of-a-kind character—bouncing back and forth across that dicey line between genius and whacko. That's what really spices up this rollicking, anecdotal biography, which makes up in style, breadth of interviews and enthusiasm what it may lack in hard musical analysis.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1936, the infant Ronald Theodore Kirk apparently had visual problems from birth and lost all sight by age two—though the exact cause is still unknown. His musical bent was noticed early when, around age five, he began to play the garden hose. (Don't laugh—the brilliant classical French-horn player Dennis Brain once recorded a Mozart horn concerto on a length of hose). From there it was to the trumpet, then tenor sax in R&B bands— then two and three saxes at a time.
Somewhere along the line he adopted the name Roland because it sounded more serious than Ronny—and later in life, after he was already established as a star, added the name Rahsaan, which he says came to him in a dream. He loved to mess with people's minds, whether about music, race or his own blindness.
He rapped about race—among other topics—from the bandstand, and was a leader in the 1969 Jazz and People's Movement, aimed a gaining broader recognition of Black Classical Music. One of the more intriguing sections of the book describes the guerrilla tactics of the organization—which included tenorman Archie Shepp, trumpeter Lee Morgan and drummer Elvin Jones—in staging sit-ins and unexpected events at live TV broadcasts. The pressure from this activist-musician element of the civil-rights-black-power movement ultimately won Kirk appearances in major broadcasts.
Pungent quotes from Kirk's various raps introduce each chapter of "Bright Moments," which was his perennial greeting-farewell. A charismatic character apart from—or possibly because of—his musical genius, he was fond of tricks and games. He told people he could hear the sun rise. He played records at odd speeds to train his own ear and confuse and test his friends. He could recognize a person's voice from a single word. "Roland could hear like a bat," said the great soprano saxist Steve Lacy.
Kirk found these strange horns to play along with his tenor: the stritch, which is a straight Buescher e-flat alto with an enlarged bell, and manzello, which was his name for a King saxello. They were modified so they could be played with one hand—something that became a necessity when, in 1975, a stroke left his one side paralyzed and he began playing the tenor with the good hand. That's what he played until his death late in 1977.
Meanwhile, before the stroke, he began including in his instrumental repertoire two clarinets, a standard alto, a baritone, a bass sax, several kinds of flutes, a reed trumpet and reed trombone, piano, didgeridoo, gongs, whistles, sirens and all manner of percussion instruments. He was possibly the first jazz flautist to hum simultaneously with his playing to create contrapuntal lines. He also was one of the early masters of circular breathing who threatened at times to hold a note into eternity.
He captured scores of musical awards, winning the Downbeat poll for decades as the greatest miscellaneous instrumentalist or for the flute or clarinet—but was constantly frustrated because he was never recognized as the top tenor player. He was apparently rankled that Stan Getz was chosen over him so many times, but respected and admired Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, especially the latter, to whom he dedicated many works.
There is a story in the book where Kirk beats up on a young bass clarinetist who was playing way outside on Coltrane's "Impressions," but did not know the "Giant Steps" scales. "How can you be into John Coltrane's music and you ain't learned 'Giant Steps'?" he yelled. "You better go home and learn it...Don't go outside just 'cause you can't go nowhere else.'"
Kirk could go as far outside as anyone. But his music was deeply rooted in blues and gospel; his earliest role models were the great swing players Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. Then hard bop became his primary voice—from which he moved heavily into the avant garde, particularly under the tutelage of Charles Mingus, who was a primary mentor. Following Mingus's lead, he created whole concept albums—virtual suites—that explored the entire language of jazz, from funk to far out. So, too, his solos could be seminars in the history of the saxophone.
As Andrew Hill puts it in the book, "He was always trying out new material and constantly listening to all types of music. The press refused to acknowledge him as anything other than a miscellaneous artist. Johnny Griffin once told me he heard Rahsaan as 'the Art Tatum of the saxophone.' He could scare the best artists to death. His technique was incredible!"
Author John Kruth, a writer, composer and multi-instrumentalist himself, notes, "Throughout his career Kirk toyed with the notion of devoting himself solely to the tenor sax so the public might understand his talent more clearly." Then comes the question of whether he would still be Rahsaan if he actually had devoted himself solely to the tenor as he was forced to do after the stroke. These are, in effect, the central questions of the book—with lots of testimony suggesting he should be recognized more widely as a tenor giant, but nothing in the line of musical or critical analysis to support or refute the issue.
Even without the kind of concrete musical evaluations we've had of artists such as Parker and Coltrane, this volume is well worth your attention. Kruth really manages to capture the spirit and the musical influence of a great character and wonderful musician who, he writes, "hurtled down life's highway like a shiny black Coup de Ville with a busted pair of headlights and his horn howling, only to reach the tollbooth much too soon."