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Music Memories: Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Rashaan Roland Kirk on the cover of Roland Kirk’s Finest Hour
Rashaan Roland Kirk on the cover of Roland Kirk’s Finest Hour

On August 7, 1935, Rahsaan Roland Kirk was born. Kirk was a jazz musician noted for his ability to play a wide range of instruments, and for his unorthodox playing techniques, which often involved playing multiple instruments simultaneously.

He was born Ronald Kirk in Columbus, Ohio. Kirk lost his sight at age 2 and later said that it was due to poor medical treatment. He was educated at the Ohio State School for the Blind.

By the time he was 15, Kirk was touring on weekends with a local R&B band, where he was already impressing audiences with his talent. Saxophonist Hank Crawford saw the teenaged Kirk perform, and described him as “an original from the beginning.”

In his late teens, Kirk changed “Ronald” to “Roland,” saying that he was moved to do so by a dream. He recorded his first album, Triple Threat, in 1956, but it had only a very limited release. The album wasn’t widely heard until it was re-released in the early 1970s under a different name.

Third Dimension

The album was so unheard that when Argo Records released his next album in 1960, they felt comfortable calling it Introducing Roland Kirk. And it was quite an introduction. Kirk played multiple saxophones, often more than one at the same time. In concert, he most often performed with three saxes around his neck—tenor, alto, and soprano—which he had modified in various ways to accommodate his simultaneous technique.

His talents extended beyond the saxophone, though. He also played several varieties of flute and recorder, including the nose flute (which he often played simultaneously with a regular flute); he occasionally played the clarinet, harmonica, English horn, and trumpet. He became proficient at playing one melody on the flute while singing or humming a second melody.

Kirk usually preferred to lead his own bands, but did work occasionally as a sideman for others. He appeared on a pair of Charles Mingus albums in the early 1960s, Tonight at Noon and Oh Yeah, and had enough respect for Mingus that he accepted an invitation to play at Mingus’s 1974 Carnegie Hall concert.

Mingus At Carnegie Hall

He also recorded several albums with Quincy Jones, including what may be his most recognizable performance. Kirk was the flute soloist on “Soul Bossa Nova,” a tune from Jones’s 1962 album Big Band Bossa Nova that became better known in the 1990s as the theme for the Austin Powers movies.

Kirk’s musical influences came not only from a wide range of jazz styles but from pop and classical music as well. Because his influences were so varied, he didn’t like to refer to his own music as jazz; he called it “Black Classical Music.”

As a soloist, Kirk most often played the saxophone, but his 1964 album I Talk With the Spirits featured only flutes. Among the fans of that album was Ian Anderson, who later said that it dramatically changed his understanding of what the flute could do, and inspired him to feature the flute as a key member of the band Jethro Tull. The first Jethro Tull album, This Was, included a cover of Kirk’s “Serenade to a Cuckoo,” from I Talk With the Spirits.

I Talk With The Spirits

In 1970, Kirk added the “Rahassan” to his name, again inspired by a dream. By now, he had begun to explore new recording techniques. His music of the early 1970s includes early electronic instruments, and he began to include non-musical sounds—alarm clocks, nature recordings, excerpts from political speeches—in his recordings. And he added to his wide array of instruments something that he called the “black mystery pipe,” a length of garden hose.

Kirk also continued to let his musical interests take him in unexpected directions. Looking at the tracklist from his 1972 album Blacknuss, you might not think it was a jazz album at all. It’s got one Kirk original composition, but it’s also got covers of mellow pop songs, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “My Girl,” “Make It With You”, and a version of the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross.”

Kirk suffered a stroke in 1975, leaving him with partial paralysis on one side of his body. He continued to perform and record, modifying his instruments to allow him to play with one arm. He even still occasionally managed to play two saxes at once. He died on December 5, 1977, after suffering a second stroke.

Most of Kirk’s albums are available for streaming at Hoopla.