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Rahsaan Roland Kirk: The Cult of Kirk

Derek Trucks, Jeff Coffin and other contemporary musicians on the legacy of the brilliant saxophonist

Cover of Roland Kirk album
Having spent almost all his life without eyesight, Rahsaan Roland Kirk could never understand why people were preoccupied with his show’s visual aspects. But how … Read More "Rahsaan Roland Kirk: The Cult of Kirk"

Having spent almost all his life without eyesight, Rahsaan Roland Kirk could never understand why people were preoccupied with his show’s visual aspects. But how could we not be? Who would not be mesmerized by the sight of a man in a towering fur hat, wraparound shades and a long caftan, with three saxophones, a flute, a clarinet, a whistle and a siren hanging from his neck-instruments that he often played two or three at a time, sometimes 10 or 20 minutes at a time, thanks to his circular breathing? Who wouldn’t be distracted by that? And when he stuck a wooden flute in his right nostril and played a melody on it-oh, man, fuhgeddaboutit.

Kirk’s protests were a bit disingenuous anyway. He knew perfectly well how eccentric he appeared onstage and did little to tone it down, for he realized that his theatricality attracted attention in a competitive environment. What frustrated him was that audiences, having been attracted by the showmanship, couldn’t then get past it and appreciate the music. That’s the double-edged sword of taking an unconventional path through the show-biz world-the very thing that gets you noticed can prevent you from being respected. Just think of Dolly Parton, whose blonde-bombshell routine made her famous but obscured the brilliance of her songwriting. Think of Sun Ra.

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Originally Published

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.