Some musicians, during their lifetimes, make an indelible mark on music history. For this week’s #BlackMusicSunday, let’s honor one of them on his birthday: multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who was born Ronald Theodore Kirk on Aug. 7, 1935, in Columbus, Ohio.
Kirk was blinded at age two in a medical tragedy, but he did not let that get in his way. At a school for the blind at nine years old, he first learned to play trumpet—and then the saxophone, flute, and clarinet. As if playing four instruments wasn’t extraordinary enough, by the age of 16, Kirk was playing more than one instrument at the same time.
Though he joined the ancestors far too young—at the age of 41 in December 1977—during the span of his 22-year musical career, Kirk carved out space in music history that will never be duplicated. Beyond making music, he also took a political stance against racism in television programming.
So join me in celebrating a giant: Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
B. Kimberly Taylor documents Kirk’s beginnings and the early years at Musician Guide:
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 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.
If you get a chance, watch The Case of the Three Sided Dream, a 2014 documentary about Kirk’s life and music. From The Hollywood Reporter’s review of the film:
Eccentric personalities were hardly rare during jazz’s most productive decades — think of cryptic Thelonious Monk or the self-styled spaceman Sun Ra — but few performers made for as diverting a stage presence as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a blind man who would emerge with a half-dozen instruments strapped to his torso and proceed to play two or three of them at the same time. Adam Kahan makes the most of this sight in The Case of the Three-Sided Dream, offering plentiful live footage of the late performer and offering only as much biographical detail as is required to flesh out Kirk’s artistic philosophies. Given a subject who’s just famous enough to attract attention but sufficiently obscure to give viewers a sense of discovery, the well-assembled doc could sustain a niche theatrical run once it has finished the fest circuit.
We learn next to nothing about the man himself that isn’t relevant to his art; the most we get is an explanation of Kirk’s blindness, which resulted from a nurse’s improper use of eyedrops when he was born. (He would later be fond of inviting bandmates to join him in pitch-black dressing rooms.) But if facts are scarce, personality is abundant: through his own interviews with BBC and American TV hosts and present-day testimony from friends, we meet a man who believed in the truths of his subconscious (dreams were his religion, his wife tells us) and was never shy about sharing opinions onstage.
Here’s the trailer:
While I disagree with Esquire’s headline—”Rahsaan Roland Kirk Is the Blind Jazz Great You’ve Never Heard Of”—since every jazz musician and jazz fan I know absolutely has heard of Kirk’s music, this is, nonetheless, a good Q&A with The Case of The Three Sided Dream’s director, Adam Kahan.
The Case of the Three Sided Dream is your first full-length documentary, though you’ve done shorter portraits of the visual artists Andres Serrano, Fred Tomaselli, and Urs Fischer. What attracted you to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, first as a musician and then as the subject of a film?
I first discovered Rahsaan Roland Kirk when I picked up a record of his at a garage sale in San Francisco in 1989. All I knew about jazz was that I wanted to know more. That day I bought three records: one by Louis Armstrong, one by Count Basie, and the Best of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The cover of the Rahsaan album was just a head shot, there were no visual cues to let me know what I was getting myself into, no three saxophones jammed into his mouth, no flute coming out of his nose, nothing to tip me off as to the daring innovation I was about to experience. I put that record on, and from the first note I was hooked.
As I bought and listened to more of Rahsaan’s music, I read more about him—specifically, the liner notes written by legendary music producer Joel Dorn. Joel made what are unquestionably Rahsaan’s most important records. He understood Rahsaan and his music on a level beyond most anyone. The more I listened to and read about this one-of-a-kind, deeply emotive artist, the more I learned about his life and the obstacles he faced—blindness, lack of recognition, dismissal of his innovation and virtuosity as a gimmick, his political agenda, the stroke, the paralysis, dialysis, his recovery, all of it. When I moved back to New York years later, I was describing Rahsaan to a friend, and saying, “someone should make a movie about this guy.” My friend replied, “You should make a movie about this guy!” That’s when I looked up Joel Dorn and told him what I wanted to do. “Come on over,” he said. That’s how it all started.
What surprised you most about Kirk in your research and in the various interviews you conducted?
We conducted a lot of interviews. Many of the early ones, regrettably, were not of good enough quality to use in the film. There were so many more stories I wish I could have included. Though [Rahsaan was] presumed to be avant-garde—and, sure, some of what he did was avant-garde—at the core, he was really a blues musician, and everything he did came from tradition and history of the music. So though he might take that history and tradition and spin it on its head, deep down he was really exactly as Jimi Hendrix described him: “a stone cold blues musician.”
As your film makes clear, it was Kirk who thought of jazz as Black Classical Music and was the first person to coin that term. Are you surprised that phrase hasn’t stuck?
He was not the first to dislike the term “jazz,” and that is a whole other question. He thought Black Classical Music was much more accurate because the music is a contribution that comes from black people, and it does have—or should have—the importance of European classical music. But it’s born here, hence Black Classical Music. I’m not surprised it hasn’t stuck, even though it seems more relevant today than ever. When you look at things like Jazz at Lincoln Center, jazz musicians playing at the White House, jazz museums, the homes of jazz greats becoming historical landmarks… In some ways, jazz is getting the recognition it deserves, as a major national historical and cultural contribution, and that was really important to him.
I can’t remember when I first heard Kirk live or bought his first record. What I can say is that I will always respond to the mention of his name with “Bright Moments!”
From “The Philosophy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk,” at “THEAUTODIDACT PROJECT” by Ralph Dumain:
Talk (Bright Moments)
Bright Moments is like hearing some music that ain’t nobody else heard, and if they heard it they wouldn’t even recognize that they heard it because they been hearing it all their life but they nutted on it, so when you hear it and you start popping your feet and jumping up and down they get mad because you’re enjoying yourself but those are bright moments that they can’t share with you because they don’t know even how to go about listening to what you’re listening to and when you try to tell them about it they don’t know a damn thing about what you’re talking about!
Is there any other Bright Moments before we proceed on? Testify! . . . . Bright Moments. Bright Moments. Bright Moments is like having brothers and sisters and sisterettes and brotherettes like you all here listening to us.
In 1967, an unlikely—to some folks—pairing took place, between American composer and musical theorist John Cage and Kirk. Eric Magnuson at WFMU’s Beware of the Blog, reviewed Sound??, the short film that brought them together, in 2011.
Three saxophones clutter the front of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s chest. His jazz band crams onto a tight stage at Ronnie Scott’s in London. Before crashing headlong into “Here Comes the Whistleman,” he passes whistles out to every audience member willing to lend their breath to his band. “I’ve been put down by many critics for exploring what I call ‘sound,’” he narrates minutes before. “Sound is something like eyesight to me.” Blind since he was two years old, Kirk told interviewers that he tried taking the sounds that he heard in his head and reproducing them onstage. But what does he hear now? Kirk demands his audience members to “play in the key of W!” “W!” he roars. And the cacophony rises. Kirk madly blows into his saxophone. The upright bass and drums follow along. The crowd’s manic, untrained whistling squeals like a flock of strangled blue birds. But as Kirk leads the room along, pushing the energy higher and higher, the audience’s trilling coos mesh together and begin forming something coherent amidst the jazz. Kirk also said that he heard sirens in his head when he played. Does he hear them now? Goddamn, the whistles begin sounding like sirens. And the crowd, itself, takes this room’s energy higher and higher. Everything is euphoric. Everything is in tune. Then the scene cuts to the avant-garde composer and philosopher poet, John Cage, who professorially intones, “Would we ever be able to get so that we thought the ugly sounds were beautiful?” But holy shit, Kirk and the audience just did. They just turned this ugly dissonance into something that might actually be considered beautiful. Maybe even mercurial.
So go the wild juxtapositions between Cage and Kirk in Dick Fontaine’s 1967 short film “Sound??” The two iconoclasts didn’t have much in common composition wise. But they did share the optimistic view that music could be derived from just about anything that made a sound, whether it was a child’s toy, a passing truck or Cage’s musical bicycle. Throughout this 27-minute film, Fontaine mixes Cage’s philosophical questions on what constitutes music with live footage of Kirk playing a lively, experimental set at Ronnie Scott’s, deftly highlighting how each man’s credo can seamlessly bounce off the other. The whistle scene is especially enlightening.
[…] “In bringing Kirk and Cage into proximity with each another,” David P. Brown wrote, “Sound?? offers an opportunity to understand the implications of a variable, rather than fixed, subject, as well as the potential of those subjects in relation to the behaviors that may be embedded in objects.” While these implications are discernibly heard in the whistling experiment, Kirk takes it a step further when he’s seen playing his saxophone in a zoo, jamming with a subject far more “variable” than man: the caged, howling wolves. Soon after, when concluding the film, Cage takes this idea of variability into an entirely different and inward direction. “There is no such thing as silence,” he says, and then tries proving his hypothesis by entering an anechoic chamber, a room designed to produce no echoes.
You can watch the 25-minute film below. I assure you it’s worth your time.
There would be more unlikely bright moments in Kirk’s career. Who could possibly imagine that he would be on The Ed Sullivan Show in January 1971? He appeared alongside Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, Roy Haynes, and more.
Here’s part of the backstory of the appearance, from All That Philly Jazz, in 2017:
In 1970, a band of musicians sounded a call to arms over the exclusion of black jazz musicians in the mass media, specifically commercial television. Broadcast TV was the dominant medium of the era. Multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk spearheaded Jazz and People’s Movement. Kirk circulated a petition in New York City jazz clubs which was signed by, among others, Lee Morgan, Charles Mingus, Andy Cyrrile, Freddie Hubbard, Cecil Taylor, Elvin Jones, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and Roy Haynes.
The petition reads, in part:
Many approaches have been used through the ages in the attempted subjugation of masses of people. One of the very essential facets of the attempted subjugation of the black man in America has been an effort to stifle, obstruct and ultimately destroy black creative genius; and thus, rob the black man of a vital source of pride and liberating strength. In the musical world, for many years a pattern of suppression has been thoroughly inculcated into most Americans. Today many are seemingly unaware that their actions serve in this suppression – others are of course more intentionally guilty. In any event, most Americans for generations have had their eyes, ears and minds closed to what the black artist has to say.
Obviously only utilization of the mass media has enabled white society to establish the present state of bigotry and whitewash. The media have been so thoroughly effective in obstructing the exposure of true black genius that many black people are not even remotely familiar with or interested in the creative giants within black society.
Action to end this injustice should have begun long ago. For years only imitators and those would sell their souls have been able to attain and sustain prominence on the mass media. Partially through the utilization of an outlandish myth, that in artistic and entertainment fields bigotry largely no longer exists, and by showrooming those few blacks who have sold out, the media have so far escaped the types of response that such suppression and injustice should and now will evoke.
The Guardian has more on Kirk’s fight for representation, from historian and professor of American Civilisation at Université Grenoble Alpes Michael Stewart Foley in 2020.
Fifty years ago this week, all hell broke loose on Dick Cavett’s US talkshow. The host was interviewing the British actor Trevor Howard before a live studio audience in New York, and began by asking him what he missed about New York. When the actor replied: “There’s no more jazz”, the studio exploded in cacophonous sound: a planned protest from the Jazz and People’s Movement. Dozens of men and women, led by Atlantic Records recording star Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whipped out small instruments and police whistles and began to wail so loudly that Cavett ran from the stage, his hands over his ears.
For the next hour, the insurgents crowded the stage with protest signs: “Honor American jazz music”, “Hire more black artists on TV”, “Stop the whitewash now”. Five decades later, the problems raised by the activists still haven’t been solved. “There has been some progress, but not nearly enough,” says Archie Shepp, the 83-year-old saxophonist, composer and playwright who participated in a number of Jazz and People’s Movement actions. Although some individual black hip-hop artists have obviously been very successful, “comparatively few” jazz artists have received appropriate recognition or reward, he says.
The movement hit its high-water mark when the Ed Sullivan Show invited Kirk to bring on an all-star band. Kirk recruited jazz giants Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes, but instead of playing a three-minute version of Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour, as promised, Kirk led the band in a six-minute medley of three compositions, the centrepiece of which was Mingus’s Haitian Fight Song. It was a revolutionary coup of the US’s most storied variety show.
There’s a reason why “My Cherie Amour” was on the Sullivan schedule: Kirk played a hellafied version of Stevie’s hit. Check out his flute solo:
While browsing YouTube for tunes to post for this story, I came across this video from a YouTuber from New Zealand named Phil Davison, “who goes by the stage name of Dr. Marigaux, and has been playing blues, jazz and rock for the last 40 years. He also has degrees in music composition form Auckland and Waikato universities.”
Davison/Marigaux talks about how hearing Kirk changed his life and musical future, and speaks about Kirk’s work impacted other musicians. It’s well worth a listen.
The Inflated Tear is both a Kirk album and a song. The album was listed by Pitchfork as one of the top 200 albums of the 1960s. Here’s a live version from the International Jazz Festival in Lucerne, Prague, in October 1967.
Here’s Kirk on Quincy Jones’ Soundstage: Downbeat Jazz: The 1975 Downbeat Reader’s Poll Awards, playing his composition Pedal Up. McCoy Tyner is on piano, Stanley Clarke on bass and Lenny White is on the drums.
A year before his 1977 death, Kirk recorded “Theme for the Eulipions” on the album The Return of the 5000 Lb. Man. It was the last album he recorded before the 1976 stroke that paralyzed his right side, but didn’t stop him from playing—he was back onstage in just four months.
That’s New Jersey poet and professor Betty H. Neals performing the spoken word intro.
Daniela Moneta posted the lyrics on the SICA USA blog.
Lyrics for the Eulipions
Ah huh, you wouldn’t forget him either
if you had met him where I met him
talkin’ about desolation. Lord
desolation is in a railroad station round about 2am on a weeknight
when you walk into desolation like that, and suddenly, out of nowhere comes
a warm song, you aren’t about to forget it
this is the first time though that I’ve heard him at the airport
I know he moves along the piers; ah hun [she laughs]
he calls himself a journey agent
Says his friends the poets and the artists and
the musicians are eulipions too
hey listen, listen to his tune
he calls it the duty-free gift for the traveler
if there were no song
you would have this song
to give warmth at night
and to keep you strong
it would make love a guess
spinning round and round
and when meteors fall
love would reach the ground
if there were no moon
to control the tides
there would be these notes
as the sail goes by
we would make song
and the praises soft
on the offer of love
may you live it out
I think I’m a eulipion. How about you?
Join me in the comments section below for a continued celebration and more bright moments with Rahsaan Roland Kirk.