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May 2000

John Kruth
Bright Moments The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Author John Kruth worked hard on this biography of multi-reedist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He interviewed many people and unearthed new material, but much of the information is anecdotal. Kirk deserves attention and Kruth’s done jazz fans a favor by writing his book. Unfortunately, his attitude toward Kirk is uncritically worshipful.

Kirk deserves raves, although he’s gotten excessive praise for some things and not enough for others. He initially attracted attention for being able to play two or three instruments simultaneously. Other musicians like Wilbur Sweatman, Manuel Manetta, Ross Gorman and Fess Williams had done this earlier, but Kirk did it for more valid musical reasons. Beyond being a superb technician, he created striking, new tone colors and textures, as if his tenor sax, manzello, stritch, flutes, etc. were components of a larger instrument. Kirk constantly blended elements from a large number of genres and his work became richer and more varied as he grew older.

Kruth got a lot of information about Kirk from his producer at Atlantic, Joel Dorn, who has reissued a number of LPs they did on 32 Jazz, including Aces Back to Back, Left Hook, Right Cross, A Standing Eight and Dog Years in the Fourth Ring, which contains previously unissued material. These albums reflect Kirk’s knowledge of not only African-American forms like gospel, New Orleans jazz, R&B, bop, the work of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, but Caribbean and African music, as well. Moreover, Kirk drew on Western classical music, produced sound collages and on “Saxophone Concerto,” his showcase for circular breathing, displays an Eastern European folk influence.

Despite the number and variety of influences on Kirk, he couldn’t help being original. No one used the instrumental combinations or played jazz flute the way he did. He performed uniquely on “normal” instruments and even made his own instruments.

Though enormously gifted, Kirk worked hard to make the most of his ability, and improved tremendously during his career. His first LP, cut for King in 1956 when he was 20, reveals him as a fine post-bop soloist, as does his 1960 Argo album. But as his 1961-68 Mercury work attests, collected on The Complete Mercury Recordings of Roland Kirk, he expanded his repertoire and the genres he drew on, evolving from an unusual post bopper to a one-man school of music.

There’s a lot to like about Kirk’s composing, playing and integrity, but he wasn’t quite the paragon that Kruth suggests, nor was he so under-appreciated. Kruth claims that Kirk was controversial and that he was dismissed by some as a novelty act. But while Kruth loads his book with favorable quotes about Kirk, there are hardly any negative ones. Why? Either Kruth exaggerates negative reaction to Kirk or he doesn’t substantiate it. Jazz musicians are generally underappreciated, but by their standards Kirk received much praise and, partly because he was a colorful, uncompromising person, had a following among rock as well as jazz fans—more of a following than fellow saxophonist greats Sonny Stitt, James Moody and Dexter Gordon did.

Kirk was a magnificent musician, but he wasn’t perfect. He swung, but not as hard or infectiously as some less well-known saxmen. Kruth quotes Kirk as saying he got “cut to shreds” by Frank Foster and Frank Wess and recalling “I remember goin’ home mad after Sonny Stitt spanked my butt.” Both Tubby Hayes and James Moody outswing Kirk on Hayes’ Smash album. Booker Ervin out-swung Kirk when both played with Charlie Mingus. Swinging is not the be all, end all and, everything considered, few saxophonists were on a level with Kirk.

On a personal level, Kirk could be paranoid and nasty. Kruth cites a few examples of this, but tries to negate them by quoting a friend as saying, “[Kirk] would never put a guy down if he were tryin’…he was supportive of honest people. But if he thought you were pretentious he’d take you apart.” However, Kirk thought far too many people were pretentious. He publicly insulted Albert Ayler at a club in my hometown, Cleveland, during the early 1960s. It wasn’t about Ayler not being honest or not trying; Kirk had contempt for him because Ayler was not technically competent or musically knowledgeable by conventional standards.

There were reasons for Kirk’s bitterness. Kruth could’ve made more of an effort to analyze them and his music. But because of his obvious cheerleading, he undermines the credibility of his book.

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