CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

How Rahsaan Roland Kirk Modified Jazz

An examination of the saxophonist's use of the stritch and manzello, and a look at new instruments and gear on the market

Rahsaan Roland Kirk in 1972
Rahsaan Roland Kirk in 1972 (photo: Heinrich Klaffs)

“Manzello & Stritch” sounds like the title of a ’70s cop show, but in the hands of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, these unusual variations on the saxophone were vehicles in an arresting display of musical innovation. If the two instruments now seem obscure, it’s worth noting that the sax itself was once an outlier, failing to catch on fully with the classical orchestras for which it was invented. It took nearly a century for jazz musicians to demonstrate the true potential of Adolphe Sax’s eponymous creation.

Ever since the sax became a major jazz instrument, most players have been content with its most popular iterations: alto, tenor, baritone, and soprano. But these aren’t the only members of the family—and Kirk was responsible for introducing at least a couple of distant cousins.

Never one to be limited by conventions (or, for that matter, by the blindness he suffered from age two on), Kirk, born in 1935, wore wind instruments the way Ali G wears bling. Years before he mastered circular breathing to play incredibly long notes, he was already a pioneering multi-instrumentalist in the truest sense of the word—playing more than one instrument at the same time. Even as a teen, he was wowing crowds with his ability to play multiple horns at once.

Among his tools were those odd sax variants known as the manzello and the stritch (both named and, as far as can be determined, created by Kirk, at least in their final form). The manzello is essentially a B-flat soprano sax with a curved neck, a straighter pipe, and an upturned bell, similar to the Saxello sold by the H.N. White Company from the mid-1920s until the late ’30s; the stritch is a similarly modded E-flat alto, but this time without the usual upturned bell. Those modifications weren’t the end of the process, though. Over time, Kirk continued making improvements to these and other instruments, retooling them so that he could play them simultaneously with greater ease—for example, fingering the tenor with his left hand and the manzello with his right while blowing a drone on the stritch.

From his 1956 debut Triple Threat through his genre-bending combinations of jazz, soul, and R&B in the 1960s and ’70s, Kirk was one of the rare innovators who never seemed to fall back onto past accomplishments but kept on inventing. After suffering a stroke in 1975, he once again used his ingenuity to reengineer his instruments, modifying his horns so he could play with one arm. He continued to perform until a second stroke took his life in 1977.

Today the stritch (which inspired the name of the San Jose jazz venue Café Stritch) and the manzello remain one of a kind. But given that they were both designed for ease of use, it’s fair to surmise that their time may come again.

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Emile Menasché

Musician, journalist, and author Emile Menasché has composed soundtracks for Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentaries. He is jealous that his dog Hudson gets more attention from passersby whenever they’re seen in public together.