Rahsaan Roland Kirk

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Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Kirk performing in 1972
Kirk performing in 1972
Background information
Birth nameRonald Theodore Kirk
Born(1935-08-07)August 7, 1935
Columbus, Ohio, U.S.
DiedDecember 5, 1977(1977-12-05) (aged 42)
Bloomington, Indiana, U.S.
GenresJazz, hard bop, soul jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, composer, arranger, bandleader
Instrument(s)Tenor saxophone, clarinet, stritch, manzello, nose flute, flute, cor anglais, keyboards, percussion
Years active1955–1977
LabelsKing, Chess, Prestige, Mercury, Limelight, Verve, Atlantic, Warner Bros.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk (born Ronald Theodore Kirk; August 7, 1935[1] – December 5, 1977),[2] known earlier in his career simply as Roland Kirk, was an American jazz multi-instrumentalist who played tenor saxophone, flute, and many other instruments. He was renowned for his onstage vitality, during which virtuoso improvisation was accompanied by comic banter, political ranting, and the ability to play several instruments simultaneously.


Ronald Theodore Kirk[1] was born in Columbus, Ohio,[2] where he lived in a neighborhood known as Flytown. He became blind at two years old, which he said was a result of improper medical treatment. As a teenager, Kirk studied at the Ohio State School for the Blind.[2] By 15, he was on the road playing rhythm and blues on weekends with Boyd Moore's band. According to saxophonist Hank Crawford, "He would be like this 14-year-old blind kid playing two horns at once. They would bring him out and he would tear the joint up." Crawford heard him during this period and said he was unbelievable. He remarked, "Now they had him doing all kinds of goofy stuff but he was playing the two horns and he was playing the shit out of them. He was an original from the beginning."[3] Kirk felt compelled by a dream to transpose two letters in his first name to make '"Roland".[3] In 1970, Kirk added "Rahsaan" to his name after hearing it in a dream.[4]

Kirk was politically outspoken. During his concerts, between songs he often talked about topical issues, including African-American 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!"[5]: 109 

In 1975, Kirk had a major stroke which led to partial paralysis of one side of his body.[2] He continued to perform and record, modifying his instruments to enable him to play with one arm.[2] At a live performance at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London he even managed to play two instruments, and carried on to tour internationally and to appear on television.[6]

He died from a second stroke in 1977, aged 42, the morning after performing in the Frangipani Room of the Indiana University Student Union in Bloomington, Indiana.[7]

Columbus Mayor Jack Sensenbrenner had declared Saturday, Dec. 10, 1970, "Rahsaan day," according to the Columbus Dispatch obituary that appeared on Thursday, Dec. 8, 1977.[8]

Kirk's hometown of Columbus was not appreciative of his work for most of his career. He was thrown out of a local nightclub because his music was too difficult to understand, and he left for Los Angeles and further touring. In the 21st century, jazz fans in Columbus have been embracing his legacy.[9]

Instruments and techniques[edit]

Kirk in 1972

Kirk's musical career spans from 1955 until his death in 1977. He preferred to lead his own bands and rarely performed as a sideman, although he did record with arranger Quincy Jones, drummer Roy Haynes and worked with bassist Charles Mingus. One of his best-known recorded performances is the lead flute and solo on Jones' "Soul Bossa Nova", a 1964 hit song repopularized in the Austin Powers films.[10]

Kirk's multi-instrumentality was credited as having a substantial musical conception. This inclusivity included blues music, a love of stride piano and early jazz, and an appreciation for pop tunes.[2] But his vision was much wider than that of most of his contemporaries. According to producer Joel Dorn, he was also hugely knowledgeable about classical music. Pieces by Saint-Saëns, Hindemith, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Villa-Lobos would all feature on his albums over the years, alongside standards, pop songs and original compositions. Rahsaan's influences went beyond jazz and consequentially, he preferred the term "Black Classical Music".[3]

His playing was generally rooted in soul jazz or hard bop, but Kirk's knowledge of jazz history allowed him to draw from many elements of the music's past, from ragtime to swing and free jazz.[2] Kirk also absorbed classical influences, and his artistry reflected elements of pop music by composers such as Smokey Robinson and Burt Bacharach, as well as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and other jazz musicians.[2]

Kirk played and collected many musical instruments, mainly multiple saxophones, clarinets and flutes. His primary saxophones were a standard tenor saxophone, stritch (a straight alto sax lacking the instrument's conventional upturned bell), and a manzello (a modified saxello soprano sax, with a larger, upturned bell).[2] A number of his instruments were exotic or homemade. Kirk modified instruments himself to accommodate his simultaneous playing technique.[11] Critic Gary Giddins wrote that Kirk's tenor playing alone was enough to bring him "renown".[4]

Usually, he appeared on stage with all three horns hanging around his neck,[2] and at times he would play a number of these horns at once, harmonizing with himself, or sustain a note for lengthy durations by using circular breathing. He used the multiple horns to play true chords, essentially functioning as a one-man saxophone section. Kirk insisted that he was only trying to emulate the sounds he heard in his head. Even while playing two or three saxophones at once, the music was intricate, powerful jazz with a strong feel for the blues.[4] The live album Bright Moments (1973) is an example of one of his shows.

Kirk was also an influential flute player, including recorders. According to Giddins, Kirk was the first major jazz innovator on flute after Eric Dolphy (who died in 1964).[4] Kirk employed several techniques, including singing or humming into the flute at the same time as playing. Another was to play the standard transverse flute at the same time as a nose flute.

He played a variety of other instruments, including whistles; often kept a gong within reach; the clarinet, harmonica, English horn, and was a competent trumpeter.[12] He utilized unique approaches, such as playing a trumpet with a saxophone mouthpiece.

He also made use of non-musical devices, such as alarm clocks, sirens, or a section of common garden hose (dubbed "the black mystery pipes"). From the early 1970s, his studio recordings used tape-manipulated musique concrète and primitive electronic sounds before such things became commonplace.[4]

The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color was a unique album in the annals of recorded jazz and popular music. It was a two-LP set, with Side 4 apparently "blank", the label not indicating any content. However, once word of "the secret message" got around among Rahsaan's fans, one would find that about 12 minutes into Side 4 appeared the first of two telephone answering machine messages recorded by Kirk, the second following soon thereafter (but separated by more blank grooves). The surprise impact of these segments appearing on "blank" Side 4 was lost on the initial CD reissue of this album (though restored as track 20 on the CD re-release).

He gleaned information on what was happening in the world via radio and TV. His later recordings often incorporated his spoken commentaries on current events, including Richard Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal. The 3-Sided Dream album was a "concept album" which incorporated "found" or environmental sounds and tape loops, tapes being played backwards, etc. Snippets of Billie Holiday singing are also heard briefly. The album even confronts the rise of influence of computers in society, as Rahsaan threatens to pull the plug on the machine trying to tell him what to do.

In the album Other Folks' Music the spoken words of Paul Robeson, another outspoken black artist, can be briefly heard.

Legacy and influence[edit]

  • Ian Anderson, leader and flautist of Jethro Tull recorded a version of Kirk's "Serenade to a Cuckoo" on their first album This Was (1968). Roland Kirk was the very reason Anderson thought he could bring a flute into rock music. Anderson learned Kirk's vocalizing style on the flute and Anderson's flute playing became the signature element of Jethro Tull's sound. Kirk and Anderson took the flute's refined upper crust classical nature and commonized it. Anderson got to know Kirk at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival where they both performed the same night. Anderson said of Kirk "There's something about these colourful shamans. They can tease us, but we go along with it, because we know they're touched by genius, but at the same time there's a little bit of the snake oil for sale."[13]
  • Jeff Coffin, the saxophonist in Béla Fleck and the Flecktones was heavily influenced by Kirk's music and says he learned through Kirk that it's OK to experiment with an instrument. He used Kirk's multi-horn inventions with the Flecktones and on his solo album Mutopia.[13]
  • Guitarist Jimi Hendrix "idolized" Kirk, and even hoped to collaborate with him one day.[14]
  • Frank Zappa had been influenced by Kirk's music to a considerable extent early in his career. In the liner notes to his 1966 debut album with The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out!, Zappa cites Kirk as one of many in a lengthy list of personal musical influences.[15][16] Kirk and Zappa performed live together at least once, at the 1969 Boston Globe Jazz Festival.[17]
  • Derek Trucks, a huge Kirk fan, recorded Kirk's composition "Volunteered Slavery" with his namesake group for the 2004 album Live at Georgia Theatre, the 2006 studio album Songlines, and the DVD Songlines Live. He said that hearing Kirk's music "felt much the same way those Hendrix records felt, that he was blowing the rules wide open..."[13]
  • David Jackson, of Van der Graaf Generator, was also highly influenced by the style and technique of Kirk, and he plays multiple saxophones simultaneously since at least 1969.[18]
  • Guitarist Michael Angelo Batio said in a 2008 interview with Ultimate Guitar Archive that Kirk's playing of two saxophones at once inspired him to create his "double guitar".[19]
  • T.J. Kirk was a band named after the three artists it tributed: Thelonious Monk, James Brown, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Formed by eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter as a side group to his own self-titled band, the band's other members include Scott Amendola, Will Bernard, and John Schott.[20]
  • Paul Weller cited the Kirk album I Talk with the Spirits (1964) as one of his "Most Influential Albums" in an interview with The Times in 2009.[21]
  • Björk named The Inflated Tear as one of her favorite jazz pieces, calling it "primitive and instinctive", "open to nature", and "punk".[22][23]
  • Davey Payne's twin saxophone solo on "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick" (Ian Dury & the Blockheads, 1978) was inspired by Kirk.[24]
  • Terry Edwards' twin saxophone solo on "The Ministry of Defence" by PJ Harvey (2016) was inspired by Kirk.[25]
  • Eric Burdon and War's 1970 debut album Eric Burdon Declares War features the track "The Vision of Rassan", which is broken up into two pieces "Dedication" and "Roll on Kirk".
  • The English post-punk group Rip Rig + Panic were named after the album of the same name by Roland Kirk.
  • Clutch pay tribute to Roland Kirk in the song "Three Golden Horns" off their 2022 album Sunrise on Slaughter Beach.[26][27]


As leader[edit]

Compilations and box sets

As sideman[edit]

With Quincy Jones

With Charles Mingus

With others


  • Kruth, John: Bright Moments. The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Welcome Rain Publishers, New York 2000 ISBN 1-56649-105-3


  1. ^ a b Kernfeld, Barry. "Kirk, Roland." The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed. Ed. Barry Kernfeld. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved February 1, 2009-. "The year of his birth has been widely given as 1936, but his birth certificate gives 1935 and confirms Ronald, not Roland."
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 1385. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  3. ^ a b c Heining, Duncan (October 19, 2016). "Roland Kirk: Here Comes The Whistleman". All About Jazz. Retrieved August 27, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d e Giddins, Gary (2000), "Chapter 47: Rahsaan Roland Kirk (One Man Band)", Visions of Jazz: The First Century. Oxford University Press.
  5. ^ Provenza, Paul; Dan Dion (2010). Satiristas: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians. HarperCollins. p. s368. ISBN 978-0061859342.
  6. ^ "Newcastle Jazz Festival". Genome Radio Times 1923–2009. BBC. 13 November 1976. Retrieved October 31, 2017.
  7. ^ "Recalling Jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Dead At 41". Jet. 53 (14). Johnson Publishing Company: 14–15. December 22, 1977. ISSN 0021-5996.
  8. ^ "Kirk (Obituary)". Columbus Dispatch. December 8, 1977. p. 34. Retrieved March 17, 2023.
  9. ^ "The Forgotten Colossus: Rahsaan Roland Kirk is Little-Known, Even in His Hometown".
  10. ^ Henry, Clarence Bernard (August 21, 2008). Let's Make Some Noise: Axé and the African Roots of Brazilian Popular Music. University Press of Mississippi. p. 167. ISBN 9781604730821. Retrieved July 13, 2020.
  11. ^ "With one instrument functioning as a drone and keywork modification to the other two, Kirk was able to play in three part harmony with himself." Stephen Cottrell (2012). The Saxophone, Yale University Press, p. 289.
  12. ^ See his version of "Bye Bye Blackbird" on The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color (1975) in which he introduces the theme on trumpet before switching to saxophones for the remainder of the song.
  13. ^ a b c Himes, Geoffrey (May 9, 2019). "Rahsaan Roland Kirk: The Cult of Kirk". jazztimes. Retrieved 15 June 2018.
  14. ^ Saunders, William (2010), Jimi Hendrix London, Roaring Forties Press. ISBN 978-0-9843165-1-9
  15. ^ Freak out wiki killuglyradio.com
  16. ^ Corcelli, John, Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Father of Invention, BackBeat Books, 2016.
  17. ^ Afka net article, Down Beat, 5/1969 Archived April 25, 2016, at the Wayback Machine.
  18. ^ Christopulos, J., and P. Smart, Van der Graaf Generator – The Book, Phil and Jim Publishers, 2005, p. 55. ISBN 0-9551337-0-X.
  19. ^ "Michael Angelo Batio: I always wanted my guitars to be different and unique" Archived April 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine, Joe Matera interview, 2008, Ultimate Guitar Archive.
  20. ^ Bill Meredith T.J. Kirk – Biography, AllMusic.
  21. ^ "Guest List: Paul Weller". The Times. 8 August 2009. Retrieved February 12, 2011.
  22. ^ "Rebellious Jukebox". Melody Maker: 46. 1993-07-10.
  23. ^ "Debut". Björk: Sonic Symbolism (Podcast). Mailchimp. 2022-09-01. Event occurs at 21:45.
  24. ^ Balls, Richard (2011), Sex & Drugs & Rock 'N' Roll, Omnibus Press.
  25. ^ Empire, Kitty (November 6, 2016). "PJ Harvey review – protest rock's dark drama queen". The Guardian.
  26. ^ "Clutch – Three Golden Horns".
  27. ^ "Clutch wanted to make a party album: It did not go as planned". November 2022.

External links[edit]