Over the years I have heard the name Rashaan Roland Kirk and have listened briefly to his music. Since I was not really a big fan of improvisational and avant-garde music, I most generally avoided his music! But last year, I discovered the album Kirk’s Work, when I was researching Jack McDuff‘s music and was really, really impressed by the album. So today, on the 79th anniversary of this inventive and influential musician, I thought that it was a good time to explore the man and his music.
Kirk was born in Columbus, Ohio as James T Kirk, no just kidding, (it’s where my mind goes when I hear Kirk…”I can’t give you anymore, Captain!). His given name was in fact Ronald Theodore Kirk. His propensity in redesign things began with his name, which he rearranged to make it Roland. Kirk added the Rashaan after hearing it in a dream. He was born with sight but went blind as a result of poor medical treatment.
In most cases his playing is considered soul jazz or hard bop. Because of his vast knowledge of jazz history, Kirk’s music draws from a variety of musical styles, sometimes ragtime or swing, and at others free jazz. Kirk soaked up influences from classical music, as well as pop, and was influenced by composers like Smokey Robinson and Burt Bacharach. Jazz influences include: Duke Ellington and Coltrane. Right now I’m listening to Bright Moments released in 1973 the album is an example of one of his live shows.
Kirk played a variety of reed instruments, with tenor saxophone being his primary instrument. Other instruments included clarinets and flutes. In addition to the tenor saxophone, Kirk played two other obscure saxophones: the stritch (a straight alto sax lacking the instrument’s characteristic upturned bell) and a manzello (a modified saxello soprano sax, with a larger, upturned bell). Using his ability to rearrange things. Kirk reshaped all three of his saxes to allow him to play them at the same time!! As a result he could play the tenor sax with his let hand, while fingering the manzello with his right and sounding a drone on the stritch. He started using this technique on his first recording on the cleverly titled – Triple Threat a 1953 recording! Siren whistles were added to his solos by 1960. To be able to play this way Kirk developed a technique of breathing called, “Circular breathing” which allowed him to play without pausing for breath!!
In addition to the saxophones Kirk also played clarinet, harmonica, English horn, recorders, trumpet, and flutes… regular and NOSE! I don’t believe that he played them simultaneously though.. but I could be mistake on that!! Not having enough regular instruments to play he designed two more: the “trumpophone” (a trumpet with a soprano sax mouthpiece), and the “slidesophone” (a small trombone or slide trumpet, also with a sax mouthpiece. Finally, if he ran out of instruments to create the music that he heard in his head he used things like alarm clocks, sirens or as he dubbed them “the black mystery pipes, which were in fact, sections of common garden hoses!
Again, always being the innovator on his studio recordings also used tape-manipulated musique concrète and primitive electronic sounds LONG before anyone else did.
In concert he often talked about political issues from Wikipedia:
Kirk was politically outspoken. During his concerts, between songs he often talked about topical issues, including black history and the civil rights movement. His monologues were often laced with satire and absurdist humor. According to comedian Jay Leno, when Leno toured with Kirk as Kirk’s opening act, Kirk would introduce him by saying, “I want to introduce a young brother who knows the black experience and knows all about the white devils …. Please welcome Jay Leno!”
In his biography at AllMusic Chris Kelsey writes…..
When discussing Kirk, a great deal of attention is always paid to his eccentricities — playing several horns at once, making his own instruments, clowning on stage. However,Kirk was an immensely creative artist; perhaps no improvising saxophonist has ever possessed a more comprehensive technique — one that covered every aspect of jazz, from Dixieland to free — and perhaps no other jazz musician has ever been more spontaneously inventive. His skills in constructing a solo are of particular note. Kirk had the ability to pace, shape, and elevate his improvisations to an extraordinary degree. During any given Kirk solo, just at the point in the course of his performance when it appeared he could not raise the intensity level any higher, he always seemed able to turn it up yet another notch.
Kirk suffered a stroke in 1975 that left on side of his body paralyzed, but did that stop him…..NO…. always the arranger and modifier Kirk continued to perform, record, tour internationally and appear on television! He just modified his instruments to allow him to play with one arm. He even managed to play two instruments at the same time at a show at Ronnie Scott;s club in London!! Kirk did not survive his second stroke, which occurred in 1977 after a performance at the Frangipani Room in the Indiana State Student Union. So after reading all this I have a new-found respect for a musician that I knew little about, but whose amazing music I will try to explore a little more in the future. So Happy Birthday, Ronald Theodore Kirk, wherever you are!!
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Here’s a performance of “The Inflated Tear” recorded in Prague in 1967, with literally all the bells and whistles!!