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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 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.

You could argue that Kirk’s multiple horn playing was inseparable from the refracted prism of his harmonies-just as Sun Ra’s rocket-from-Saturn shtick was inseparable from the otherworldly genius of his harmonies-and you’d probably be right. Maybe Kirk couldn’t have achieved what he did if he hadn’t been willing to follow his sonic explorations into the kind of circus theatricality that some people might snicker at. But it has complicated the assessment of his proper place in jazz history. Is he a curious footnote like the bagpipe-playing Rufus Harley? Or is he a major figure like his one-time employer Charles Mingus? Or something in between?

It’s now been a bit more than 30 years since Kirk died on Dec. 5, 1977, enough time for his reputation to have withered if he had been merely a novelty act. Instead his profile keeps rising. The reissues keep coming; his compositions are still being performed and recorded. If critics haven’t given him a mountaintop position next to Mingus and Coleman, they keep pushing Kirk up the slope-just as they have with Sun Ra since his death. Kirk’s praises are still being sung by musicians-and not just by jazz players of his own generation.

Derek Trucks, for example, was born a year and a half after Kirk died and now plays guitar in his own Derek Trucks Band and the Allman Brothers Band. Trucks is such a big Kirk fan, however, that the relative youngster has recorded Kirk’s composition “Volunteered Slavery” on his group’s most recent studio album, 2006’s Songlines (Sony), and on two live releases: the 2004 live album Live at Georgia Theatre and the DVD Songlines Live. “The first time I heard Rahsaan,” Trucks says, “was on that Atlantic compilation [1993’s Does Your House Have Lions]. It felt much the same way those Hendrix records felt, that he was blowing the rules wide open and was just playing music. In my mind it seemed that Rahsaan and Hendrix came from the same far-off planet-like superheroes. You could tell by Rahsaan’s tone and his phrasing that he knew his stuff, that he could play inside when he wanted to. But he didn’t always want to, and when he wanted to go outside, that felt just as honest and as musical as playing inside.”

Jeff Coffin, the saxophonist in Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, was only 12 when Kirk died, but Coffin too has fallen under the late reed player’s spell. Charles Mingus’ Oh Yeah, the album that introduced the Flecktone to Kirk’s multi-horn inventions, didn’t leave Coffin’s CD changer for months. His new solo album, Mutopia (Compass), showcases his own approach to double-horn playing. “I stole a lot of stuff from Rahsaan,” Coffin cheerfully confesses. “It’s fascinating to experiment with instruments the way he did. Rahsaan used to tap on the keys of his flute to get a percussive sound, so I tried that on my tenor saxophone. Rahsaan used his whistles as a drone instrument, and I’m interested in Indian music, so I adopted that too. That’s what a lot of musicians get from Rahsaan-the permission to explore. I do a lot of clinics and one thing I try to get across to the students is it’s OK to experiment with your instrument.”

The poll-winning trombonist Steve Turre, who served several stints in Kirk’s bands, assembled a group featuring multi-reedist James Carter for the 2004 Kirk tribute album, The Spirits Up Above (HighNote), and led the all-star band last December at Saint Peter’s Church in New York City that paid tribute to Kirk close to the 30th anniversary of his death. Turre argues that only when people turn away from the visual-and Kirk’s videos are popular items on YouTube-and focus on the aural will they fully grasp Kirk’s achievements. “It’s all about listening,” Turre insists, “though I don’t think kids are taught that today. When I first encountered him, I’d just listen and go with the flow. We used to go up to his hotel room and listen to records in the dark. He was sightless, so he didn’t need the lights. It made me concentrate on the sound. It took me inside Rahsaan’s world and allowed me to experience music as he did.

“Yeah, the unusual aspects of his shows were amazing, but I didn’t let that stop me from hearing the music. His shows were unconventional, but only because he was being himself. It was all about feeling; it wasn’t all mechanical and contrived; it wasn’t different for different’s sake. It wasn’t for an intellectual concept; it was just Rahsaan being Rahsaan.”

It’s all there on the 10-CD box set, Rahsaan: The Complete Mercury Recordings of Roland Kirk. On 1963’s “Variations on a Theme of Hindemith,” Kirk starts on flute, at first warbling conventionally and then overblowing. He moves to manzello (his customized adaptation of the saxello, itself an adaptation of the straight soprano sax) for a long solo spiced by squealing bursts from his siren whistle. He then begins a drone on the tenor sax while soloing on the stritch (Kirk’s customized version of a straight alto sax). Each of these five instruments adds a new surprise to the piece, but behind each surprise is an idea.

Kirk opens and closes 1965’s “Mystical Dream” by playing tenor sax, stritch and oboe as a one-man horn section and gets a warm, choir-like sound that reinforces the sense of reverie. “From Bechet, Byas, and Fats” from the same session features Kirk’s circular breathing as he sustains his tenor-sax solo for a long, unbroken string of bars. But what’s remarkable about the solo is not its length but its constant invention. On 1961’s “You Did It, You Did It,” he sings through his flute, not merely to get a strange sonic effect but to enhance the bluesy underpinnings of the song. “He was way ahead of his time,” claims Turre. “Yes, some people weren’t ready for it, but if he were around today, it would be much more acceptable. I knew him well, and it really hurt his feelings when people would say that playing three horns was just a gimmick. Because he was playing some heavy music on those horns.”

Any new musical technique-whether it is the electric guitar, saxophone dissonance or the musical saw-seems a gimmick when it first appears. No one thinks of electric guitar and saxophone dissonance as novelties anymore, because too much great music has been made with them. The musical saw, by contrast, still seems a gimmick, because the instrument has yet to find the genius who might unleash its possibilities. Kirk’s innovations-the multiple horn playing, the circular breathing, the flute singing, the uncommon instruments-have been imitated by a few musicians. But he doesn’t require followers to prove the worth of his breakthroughs because he has already proven great music can be made with them.

Kirk didn’t invent his techniques any more than Charlie Christian invented amplification or John Coltrane dissonance. There had long been musicians who would play multiple horns or employ circular breathing in carnivals and juke joints for the sheer “wow” factor of the spectacle. But because such practices were disdained they were also free from expectations, and Kirk, like Christian and Coltrane before him, could write his own rules in the absence of any precedents. In other words, the very weirdness of the techniques was not incidental to the resulting innovations, but served as the door through which the breakthroughs walked. “His willingness to try such unusual methods was part of his creativity,” maintains Kirk’s longtime friend Jimmy Heath. “Anyone who tries something new finds themselves having to justify themselves. The whole bebop generation went through that. Whenever someone comes out with something else, the new movement is belittled by people who are doing what they think should be done. But any movement that comes along has something to offer.”

It’s useful to remember that most of Kirk’s unusual techniques were not adopted when he was an adult professional trying to find an edge in a competitive business but were taken up when he was a teenager trying to find his musical voice. They were not extraneous additions to his playing; they were at the core of his sound from the beginning. “The basic gestalt of his music-the joy, the overwhelming virtuosity, the experimentation-was all there in the ’50s,” insists Kirk’s childhood friend Todd Barkan. “In his youth, he adapted the day-to-day objects of his environment for music-making purposes-even a garden hose became the black mystery pipes. When I traveled with him in the ’70s, he didn’t seem substantially different from the person I’d known in the ’50s, only more organized and focused.”

Barkan, who would become the founder/owner of the Keystone Korner in San Francisco, a programmer for Jazz at Lincoln Center and a producer for everyone from Archie Shepp to Freddy Cole, met Kirk in what can only be described as a great coincidence. In the summer of 1954, Barkan was an 8-year-old white kid on a Columbus, Ohio city bus, traveling by himself to a minor-league baseball game. He noticed that in the backseat of the bus, an 18-year-old black kid was playing tenor saxophone, apparently in a duet with the bus engine. “I can only say that he sounded like a snake charmer from another planet,” Barkan says today. “It was a sound I had never heard in my life, but it was something that was certainly seductive. I’d been listening to my parents’ Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck records, so I was open enough to what he was doing to want to know more.”

Fearlessly curious in the way that only pre-pubescent children can be, Barkan walked back and asked the teenager who he was and what he was doing. The older kid said he was Ronnie Kirk-it was only later, early in his professional career, that he became Roland Kirk, and only in 1970 that he announced his final name change with the album Rahsaan Rahsaan. Barkan was quickly invited over to Kirk’s home to listen to some LPs. “He liked the fact that someone outside his community was interested in the music that he loved so much,” Barkan says. “I was, of course, very ingenuous and naïve, but he was always interested in sharing the music with those open enough to receive it. We would spend a day listening to tenor saxophonists, so I would learn what they sounded like. Then a day listening to alto saxophonists. This was my Jazz 101, but it was done in a non-pedantic way. He’d say, ‘Here’s Jimmy Rushing, ain’t that cool?'”

Kirk had been blind from infancy, but his mother Gertrude made a point of making him as independent as possible. She encouraged him to travel on his own and to pursue his music without fear. Though she died when she was 36, she instilled such pride in her son that he often bristled at any slight. “He disliked the word ‘blind’ profusely,” his widow Dorthaan Kirk points out. “He’d say, ‘I’m not blind; I just don’t see the way the rest of you do.’ When we’d go down the street and see a sightless person with a cup begging for money,’ he never wanted to put money in the cup, because he thought everyone should be as independent as he was. I’d tell him, ‘Not everyone can be as confident as you are.’

“One of the things I hated most was going to a restaurant with him. The waitress would inevitably ask, ‘What does he want?’ He would get so angry. He’d say, ‘Miss, maybe I can’t see, but I can talk and I know what I want.’ OK, so we get the food, but then the check comes and who do you think the waitress gives the check to? He’d say, ‘Miss, do you think because I can’t see I don’t have any money?’ He probably had more money in his pocket than anyone else there.”

Though he was blind, he loved to go as a teenager to the Gaetz Music Store in Columbus and have the owner pull out strange instruments and describe them. That’s how Kirk found the mangled saxello, pulled from the shop’s cellar, that he turned into the “moon zellar” or “manzello,” and the straight alto that he customized as a “stritch.” When he was about 16, Kirk had a dream of playing his tenor sax and his two new acquisitions at once, and he immediately set out to figure out how to do it in his waking life.

This created a pattern that would continue the rest of his life. Kirk was always picking up unlikely instruments and bending them to his will. Jimmy Heath remembers the time he received a shakuhachi, a Japanese wooden flute, as a present from his brother Tootie. Not long after, Jimmy went to see his old friend Kirk at Pep’s, the Philadelphia nightclub. “I told Rahsaan, ‘My brother Tootie gave me this shakuhachi but I can’t get a sound out of it,'” Heath remembers. “I handed it to Rahsaan and he immediately got a sound out of it. That was embarrassing enough, but I went back there three days later and he said from the stage, ‘Jimmy Heath, I’m going to play a song on the shakuhachi.’ He had already mastered it and was already making music with it.”

“Every time I saw him he was trying something different,” adds Turre. “One time he had a transistor radio hanging around his neck with all those whistles and bells. He’d turn on the radio, put a mic on it and start twisting the dial. He’d play along with whatever came on. If it was classical music, he’d play along with that; if it was country music, he’d play with that.

“Another time we were trading fours on the bandstand and he reached over-remember, he couldn’t see-took the mouthpiece out of my trombone, put it in his saxophone and started playing it. It didn’t sound as reedy; it sounded more round and less edgy. The way I took it, he was opening my ears as if to say, ‘If you can hear it, you can play it. Why don’t you try to get to this on the trombone?’ He didn’t teach by saying, ‘Look on page 32’; he taught by example.”

On a tour in 1970, Kirk brought along a conch shell and Turre kept waiting to see how the bandleader would use it. It just hung from his neck, untouched, for several dates. But one night, when some drunks were being disruptive during the show, Kirk picked up the shell and held a note with circular breathing for four minutes until everyone eventually noticed and fell silent. Turre was so fascinated by the shell’s calming effect that he borrowed his employer’s conch and eventually became the instrument’s virtuoso.

“I was a little wary at the beginning,” he admits, “because I didn’t want to go through the same thing Rahsaan had gone through, of having people say it was just a gimmick. Fortunately most people like it-a few don’t, but that’s their problem, not mine. I know one thing: Dizzy liked it; Art Blakey liked it. Woody Shaw liked it. If those people like that like it, I know it’s right. What do I care if Joe Blow doesn’t like it?”

By the mid-’50s, Kirk was touring the Midwest, often with soul-jazz organ groups, bringing his unusual assortment of horns with him. He recorded his first album, Triple Threat, for King Records in 1956, and an impressed Ramsey Lewis got him a contract with Chess Records, which released Introducing Roland Kirk in 1960. But it wasn’t till the following year, when Kirk joined Charles Mingus’ band for four months, stood out as a soloist on Mingus’ Oh Yeah, and signed his own long-term contract with Mercury Records that Kirk made much of an impression on the national jazz community.

“Even when I was underage, I’d go see him play in Columbus,” Barkan recalls. “You could go in the clubs if you wore a Hawaiian lei so you wouldn’t be served drinks. You were like a mascot, not a customer. Rahsaan was playing the multiple horns even then, but that wasn’t what people were responding to; he was already a virtuoso tenor player, and people responded to the joy and energy he brought to that instrument, even in the late ’50s.”

“He fought that gimmick label his whole life,” Dorthaan Kirk says. “What he wanted more than anything in his music was just to be acknowledged as a tenor saxophonist. That doesn’t mean he didn’t love the other instruments, especially the flute, but the tenor was his main instrument.”

Kirk played more tenor than anything, and on his two pre-Rahsaan masterpieces-1961’s We Free Kings (Mercury) and 1965’s Rip, Rig and Panic (Limelight)-his tenor solos were the highlights. He favored the big, brawny sound of the Texas/Oklahoma blowers like Illinois Jacquet, Don Byas and Arnett Cobb, but he was also capable of shaping that power with the lyricism of a Lester Young or Dexter Gordon. “I feel very strongly that the more theatrical, circus aspects of his performance-and I use the term circus with a lot of love,” adds Barkan, “did distract from a proper appreciation of his enormous depth and importance by the mainstream jazz world. People like Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, James Moody and Booker Ervin loved Rahsaan’s playing as a straightahead tenor player. The other stuff was an important part of his presentation but it was to some extent window dressing. The challenge in giving Rahsaan his proper due as a mainstream jazzman often gets lost in the cloud of discussion about his multi-instrumental virtuosity.”

Early in his career especially, Kirk proved his mainstream discipline and chops by recording not only with Mingus but also Quincy Jones, Roy Haynes and Jaki Byard. But much like Mingus, Kirk found himself stranded between the bebop establishment and the free-jazz renegades during the ’60s. Both men were too fond of introducing political commentary and dissonance into their music to be fully trusted by the boppers, and too fond of quoting Duke Ellington, Lester Young and Jelly Roll Morton to be fully trusted by the radicals. You wouldn’t think that someone who played nose flute and siren onstage would be obsessed with jazz history, but Kirk was. “Dizzy always said, ‘You have to have one foot in the past and one foot in the future,'” Heath points out. “You have to rely on your heart’s ear to tell the new that will endure from the new that won’t. I knew Rahsaan was going to endure, because he knew his history but wasn’t afraid to try something new.”

“When he died, he had more than 7,000 albums,” Dorthaan Kirk points out. “I know because I inventoried them when we moved from Philadelphia to East Orange, N.J., in 1974. When I went with him to the record store, I’d have to read every title, every composer, every sideman, and he would explain how they were important even though they were sidemen.

“He had to go to the store every week to find out what the new releases were-[he] often would go to the store by himself. He’d take the 88 bus to Port Authority; the cops at the Port Authority would get him a taxi to Ponte Music Company, then he’d go to Happy Tunes in the Village, where Jim Eigo would help him go through the records. Jim would get him a taxi and call me to tell me approximately what time his bus would get back to Jersey.”

“He not only knew where all those records were, he knew who was playing on each one,” Turre adds. “He could not only play the older styles, but he could also take you way out into the ozone. He played the whole history of the music, but it was never cloning, it was never mimicry; it was always Rahsaan. When he played in the traditional New Orleans style, it was on a song he wrote called ‘Red Beans and Rice.’ When he played in the Ellington style, it sounded like it was Ellington, but it was Rahsaan.”

In 1965, kirk moved from Mercury to Atlantic Records, where he forged a fruitful partnership with the late producer Joel Dorn (and with Dorn’s teenage assistant, Hal Willner). This era yielded two more masterpieces-1968’s The Inflated Tear and 1969’s Volunteered Slavery. It was also during these years that Kirk’s impact first registered beyond the jazz realm in the rock world.

Kirk often made caustic comments about the pop world in interviews and from the stage, but he did record Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Walk on By” as well as Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour.” He even recorded the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” and quoted extensively from “Hey Jude” in the coda for “Volunteered Slavery.”

In 1967 Ian Anderson was a young London musician who was depressed by the realization that he’d never be as good a guitarist as Eric Clapton. He was fooling around with the flute, but he couldn’t imagine the slender silver stick being accepted in rock ‘n’ roll. But when Anderson pulled out the flute for a show by his band Jethro Tull, his old schoolmate (and future Tull bassist) Jeffrey Hammond said, “I have this record you should listen to.” It was Kirk’s I Talk With the Spirits. “That was his flute album,” Anderson remembers. “He was singing and scatting through his flute the same way I was, only he was a lot better at it. But that put the seal of approval on the flute as a cool instrument and on singing through it as a technique. It was a way of vulgarizing and humanizing something that’s often thought of as a refined classical instrument. It brought back that earthiness, that gritty, subversive quality to an elegantly designed artifact. It allowed me to make the flute something that could stand up next to Clapton and Hendrix.”

One particular track from Kirk’s flute album, “Serenade to a Cuckoo,” especially captivated Anderson. It was a simple enough that a fledgling rock ‘n’ roll band like Jethro Tull could master it, but it had a bird-song quality that entranced the group’s young audiences. It quickly became a mainstay of the band’s live shows and eventually appeared on Jethro Tull’s first album, This Was. Anderson actually got to meet Kirk at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival. “Rahsaan was a lot like Captain Beefheart,” Anderson now says. “They’re cut from the same cloth. There’s something about these colorful shamans. They can tease us, but we go along with it, because we know they’re touched by genius, but at the same time there’s a little bit of the snake oil for sale.”

“There’s a video of Rahsaan when he was opening for Led Zeppelin on TV in London,” Coffin points out. “You see the guys from Led Zeppelin hanging out on the side awestruck by what they’re seeing. Rahsaan stomped his foot and went into ‘I Say a Little Prayer for You’ over what sounded like a thousand-year groove that they’d just come up with. I must have rewound that clip a hundred times. I couldn’t understand how it could be so heavy, that music.”

“The fact that Rahsaan continues to influence so many musicians so long after his life,” adds Trucks, “is the true measure of his greatness. I play Rahsaan for a lot of people who aren’t into jazz and it gets them interested in jazz. With a lot of listeners you have to crack them over the head and wake them up and once you’ve got their attention they can appreciate the more subtle things. And there is a lot of subtlety in Rahsaan’s music, especially the ballads.”

Kirk’s showmanship distracted not only from his achievement as a tenor player but also as a composer. But several of his compositions have entered the canon. Everyone from Grover Washington Jr. and Jon Hendricks to Max Roach, Dave Douglas and former Kirk pianist, the late Hilton Ruiz, has recorded “Bright Moments.” Ruiz also recorded “Serenade to a Cuckoo,” as did Jane Bunnett and Jethro Tull. “Spirits Up Above” was cut by Stanley Turrentine, Eugene Chadbourne and Osibisa; “Volunteered Slavery” by Trucks and Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell. “‘Volunteered Slavery’ is such an eerily strong melody,” Trucks declares, “such a simple thing but the first time I heard it it stuck with me for months. I meet people who can’t shake it after they first hear it. It almost sounds like a field holler, and yet it allows you to do all kinds of rhythmic and harmonic things with it. Whenever a melody is strong enough you can do a million things with it, that’s a standard.”

“‘Bright Moments’ is definitely a standard,” Turre adds. “So are ‘Three for the Festival’ and ‘The Inflated Tear.’ If a song is just candy for the brain, it will fade with time. But if it touches the heart, it will last. Why do you think people still care about Ray Charles? Because he touched people-country people, rock people, jazz people were always touched by Ray. The same is true of Rahsaan.”

In 1975, two days before Thanksgiving, Kirk suffered a massive stroke at his New Jersey home that left the whole right side of his body paralyzed. He had the keys of his horns refitted so he could play one, even two horns, with only his left hand. He continued to tour and record, but it wasn’t the same. A little more than two years later he died in Indiana while on tour. He was 41.

The only time I got to see Kirk was during that last year, when he played at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore on Jan. 23, 1977. The high ceilings were painted a dark blue and dotted with clouds and stars; the stage was surrounded by a striped satin canopy. Backed by Turre, pianist Hilton Ruiz, bassist Phil Bowler and drummer Sonny Brown, Kirk wore a shiny suit, a stocking cap and wraparound shades. His right arm hung limply, but his left arm compensated by darting around his chest, playing first his tenor, then the manzello or stritch, then his new L-shaped flute that he could play one-handed.

I was a 24-year-old kid, just beginning a music journalism career, and I was easily distracted by the vaudeville aspects. I loved the showmanship, but in the callowness of youth I didn’t take it as seriously as, for example, the elegance of Dexter Gordon, who played there four months later.

It was only later that I learned to shut my eyes, to shut out the distractions and listen to the music without worrying about how it was made. When I did that I could hear that there was something more going on than the weird instruments and strange techniques. On the best records, there was a powerful drama of frustration and yearning, as powerful as Mingus’ great tracks. Kirk wasn’t nearly as consistent as Mingus and can’t be ranked as highly. But Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the Whistleman, the pied piper of jazz, certainly deserved to be taken as seriously as Dexter Gordon. 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.