Born Roland Kirk in 1936; died in 1977; married wife, Edith; children: Rory Stritch Kirk. Education: Attended the Ohio State School for the Blind. Jazz instrumentalist. Joined Boyd Moore Band at age 15, Columbus, OH; played briefly with a rhythm and blues band in Texas; began recording in Chicago, c. 1960-62; played with Charles Mingus, New York City, c. 1962; played at Newport Jazz Festival, 1969. Invented the rokon whistle.
When Rahsaan Roland Kirk stood before an audience in the 1960s and seventies he resembled a fantastic, surreal, one-man band. A stritch--an instrument resembling a dented blunderbuss--hung well below his knees and a quasi saxophone called a manzello was usually wrapped around his neck at the ready. A tenor saxophone with a flute conveniently placed in the bell added to the picture. Also hanging from Kirk's neck was an arsenal of homemade instruments: a foot-long siren whistle held together with globs of tape, a song flute shortened so that it appeared to be a fat, black cigar--which he played with his nose--and a rectangular humming cube dubbed The Evil Box. Kirk played all three horns simultaneously, looking very much like a kid trying to eat three bananas at once. Making this weird spectacle all the more impressive was that Kirk was also blind.
Though he seemed gimmicky to some club owners, Kirk transcended his status as a freakish attraction and played with a virtuosity and searing emotionalism reminiscent of jazz greats John Coltrane and Sidney Bechet. When he put all three horns in his mouth, blowing like a whale, what spouted forth sometimes sounded like a bagpiper's band skirling in a Fourth of July parade. In 1963 Time magazine reported that "Roland Kirk ... meshes a thrumming beat, a fertile imagination and an impish humor to achieve an exciting union of the pagan and the modern spirit--as if Pan were suddenly found piping merrily in a rush-hour subway." Anyone who can pop a child's plastic song flute into his right nostril during a flute solo and trill out a brief duet can't be all bad. In fact, this is an impossible feat for most musicians.
Kirk was a self-taught musician and a self-described "progressive jazz musician and a humorist." When he laid aside the stritch--forerunner of the alto saxophone--and manzello--forerunner of the soprano saxophone--the whistle, and The Evil Box, his tenor solos were smooth, flowing and wild. When he played siren whistle solos--by placing the whistle's bell directly on the microphone and simultaneously blowing and humming--he produced an effect not unlike a room full of mumbling sleepers.
Blind from the age of two, Kirk reported in Ebony, "I think a nurse put too much medicine in my eyes, and my mother didn't find out about it until too late." By age five he wanted to be a bugle boy at a camp where his parents were counselors. Kirk's uncle played piano and Kirk would accompany him by tooting along on a water hose. By the time he was ten he had progressed to trumpet. Kirk's doctor noticed how distended his cheeks were when he played, so he worried about Kirk's eyes, and discouraged the youth from playing for two years. Kirk attended the Ohio State School for the Blind in Columbus. At 12 he took up the saxophone and clarinet. At 15 he was playing with Boyd Moore's band--a well-known combo in the Columbus area. Kirk played rhythm and blues and was billed as The Walking Blind Man. About that time he had a prophetic dream in which he was playing two instruments simultaneously. There followed a three year "search for the sound." He told a music store proprietor in Columbus about the dream and the man took him to the store's basement, where he kept a few antique instruments. Kirk found a manzello there and began playing it, along with his tenor, in Boyd Moore's band. "The search," he said, "was over." Later, at the same place, he found his stritch.
Moore quickly perceived Kirk as "getting too modern and too far out," so Kirk and a drummer friend headed to Los Angeles. They were going to pedal there from Ohio on a tandem bicycle, but a nervous Mrs. Kirk persuaded them to take a bus. Kirk did not have much luck in Los Angeles, however, so he moved to Texas with a rhythm and blues band. When that band dissolved he headed back to Columbus via St. Louis. He went to hear sax legend Charlie Parker in St. Louis and sat way in the corner, playing along with Parker's "Half Nelson" on his plastic song flute. According to Sun Magazine contributor James D. Dilts, Parker heard him, and after finishing his set, approached Kirk and said, "I can tell by the way you play on this little thing that you've got something, so keep it up."
In 1960 Kirk lit out for Chicago. There he made some records and found success, but he cut an odd figure in the studio. Down Beat magazine's Don DeMicheal was on hand. When someone asked Kirk in the studio why he played the siren whistle, Kirk explained, "I hear sirens in my head." DeMicheal later commented, "I expected him at any moment to take out a bag of goofer dust and cast hexes on us all."
In 1962 Kirk landed in New York City. It wasn't long before he came to the attention of leading jazz bassist Charlie Mingus; within a few weeks word was out that there was a new talent in town. After a stint with Mingus, Kirk went out on his own. At the Newport Jazz Festival during the summer of 1969 he broke through to the vast young white audience, while achieving major prominence within the black realm. Between songs he offered wry comments concerning LSD, making love, racism, politics and television. He was particularly vocal about the dearth of black musicians featured on U.S. television, and about the pilfering of black music by white culture--without the establishment of proper credit.
Kirk invented a whistle called the rokon and had 45 instruments in his home. He added Rahsaan to his name because it occurred to him in a dream. "I have no religion that you get out of books," Kirk told Dilts. "I am not a Muslim. My whole religion has been in this dream religion. My life has been motivated by dreams." Kirk's stylistic province comprised nearly every jazz idiom and genre from blues shouting to free form, though his roots seem thickest in the swing era. In 1974 he traveled with a huge gong, foghorn, and a whistle, which he used to silence an inattentive crowd. "I want respect even if I'm playing in a snake pit," he asserted to Don Delliquanti in People. Kirk's loyal fans sensed his need to communicate from a sphere more noisy, but paradoxically, more ordered and lovely than their own.
by B. Kimberly Taylor
Rahsaan Roland Kirk's Career
Rahsaan Roland Kirk's Awards
Down Beat awards from international jazz critics, 1961 and 1963.
- Selective Works
- Rip, Rig and Panic, Limelight, 1967.
- Here Comes the Whistleman, Atlantic, 1967.
- Left and Right, Atlantic, 1969.
- Natural Black Inventions, Root Strata, Atlantic, 1971.
- Blackness, Atlantic, 1972.
- Bright Moments (live), 1973.
- (With Jack McDuff, Joe Benjamin, and Arthur Taylor) Kirk's Work (recorded 1961), Mercury, 1977.
- (With Richard Wyands, Hank Jones, Art Davis, Wendell Marshall, and Charlie Persip) We Free Kings (recorded 1961), Mercury, reissued, 1986.
- (With Ira Sullivan) Introducing Roland Kirk (recorded 1960), Chess, 1990.
- 1990 Rahsaan: The Complete Mercury Recordings of Roland Kirk (recorded 1961-65).
- The Man Who Cried Fire, Night, 1991.
- The EmArcy Jazz Series (reissue), Polygram.
- Case of the 3-Sided Dream in Color, Atlantic.
- The Inflated Tear, Atlantic.
- Down Beat, May 23, 1963.
- Ebony, May 1966.
- New York Herald, May 27, 1962.
- New York Times, April 3, 1971; May 30, 1971; July 7, 1973; December 16, 1990.
- People, July 15, 1974.
- Reporter, June 5, 1967.
- Sun Magazine (Balitmore), April 30, 1967.
- Time, August 9, 1963.
- Village Voice, September 3, 1970; December 25, 1990.
- Washington Post, April 29, 1970.