Rahsaan Roland Kirk

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Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Background information
Birth name Ronald Theodore Kirk
Born (1935-08-07)August 7, 1935
Columbus, Ohio, United States
Died December 5, 1977(1977-12-05) (aged 42)
Bloomington, Indiana, United States
Genres Jazz
Soul jazz[1]
Avant-garde jazz[1]
Mainstream jazz[1]
Occupation(s) Saxophonist, flutist, composer, arranger, bandleader
Instruments Tenor saxophone, clarinet, stritch, manzello, nose flute, flute, cor anglais, keyboards, percussion
Years active 1955–1977
Labels King, Chess, Prestige, Mercury, Limelight, Verve, Atlantic, Warner Bros
Associated acts Charles Mingus, Quincy Jones

Rahsaan Roland Kirk (August 7, 1935[2] – December 5, 1977) 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.


Kirk was born Ronald Theodore Kirk[2] in Columbus, Ohio, where he lived in a neighborhood known as Flytown. He felt compelled by a dream to transpose two letters in his first name to make Roland. He became blind at an early age as a result of poor medical treatment.[3] In 1970, Kirk added "Rahsaan" to his name after hearing it in a dream.

Preferring to lead his own bands, Kirk rarely performed as a sideman, although he did record with arranger Quincy Jones and drummer Roy Haynes and had notable stints 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 (Jones 1964; McLeod et al. 1997).

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. 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. The live album Bright Moments (1973) is an example of one of his shows. His main instrument was the tenor saxophone, supplemented by other saxes, and contrasted with the lighter sound of the flute. 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, or play the rare, seldom heard nose flute. A number of his instruments were exotic or homemade, but even while playing two or three saxophones at once, the music was intricate, powerful jazz with a strong feel for the blues.

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!"[4]

In 1975, Kirk suffered a major stroke which led to partial paralysis of one side of his body. However, he continued to perform and record, modifying his instruments to enable him to play with one arm. 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 even appear on television.

He died from a second stroke in 1977 after performing in the Frangipani Room of the Indiana University Student Union in Bloomington, Indiana.[5]

Instruments and technique[edit]

Kirk in 1972

Kirk played and collected a number of musical instruments, mainly various saxophones, clarinets and flutes. His main instruments were tenor saxophone and two 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). Kirk modified these instruments himself to accommodate his simultaneous playing technique.

He typically appeared on stage with all three horns hanging around his neck, as well as a variety of other instruments, including flutes and whistles, and often kept a gong within reach. Kirk also played clarinet, harmonica, English horn, and recorders, and was a competent trumpeter. He often had unique approaches, using a saxophone mouthpiece on a trumpet or playing nose flute. He additionally used many non-musical devices, such as alarm clocks, sirens, or a section of common garden hose (dubbed "the black mystery pipes"). His studio recordings also used tape-manipulated musique concrète and primitive electronic sounds (before such things became commonplace).

Rahsaan simultaneously playing flute and singing, punctuated with a siren whistle.

Rahsaan playing black mystery pipes.

Rahsaan simultaneously playing multiple saxophones.

Problems playing these files? See media help.

Kirk was also an influential flautist, employing several techniques that he developed himself. One technique was to sing or hum 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.

Some[who?] have suggested that Kirk's unique onstage appearance and simultaneous multi-instrumentalism were gimmicks to the point of linking these to his blindness[citation needed], but Kirk's playing and performance tended to silence these ideas. 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.

Kirk was a major exponent of circular breathing. Using this technique, he was not only able to sustain a single note for an extended period; he could also play sixteenth-note runs of almost unlimited length, and at high speeds. His circular breathing ability enabled him to record "Concerto For Saxophone" on the Prepare Thyself to Deal With a Miracle LP in one continuous take of about 20 minutes' playing with no discernible "break" for inhaling. His long-time producer at Atlantic Jazz, Joel Dorn, believed he should have received credit in The Guinness Book of World Records for such feats (he was capable of playing continuously "without taking a breath" for far longer than exhibited on that LP), but this never happened.

The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color was a unique album in jazz and popular music recorded annals. 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 CD reissue of this album.

He gleaned information on what was happening in the world via audio media like radio and the sounds coming from TV sets. 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 of "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]

  • Virtuoso guitarist Jimi Hendrix "idolized" Kirk, and even hoped to collaborate with him one day.[6]Hendrix performed with Kirk at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London 1967? Hendrix reported in an interview (?reprinted in Guitar Player Magazine?): "I was so scared...I mean, Roland...He told me I should have turned it up..."; also listed by Hendrix as influence in printed music to "Are You Experienced" songbook
  • Trombonist Steve Turre was strongly influenced by Kirk's music (and by his use of a conch shell as a second instrument).[citation needed]
  • Kirk's technique of humming while playing the flute was adopted later by many other players, including Dave Valentín, Jeremy Steig, Thijs van Leer. Teddy Osei, and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull (who covered the Kirk tune "Serenade to a Cuckoo" on Jethro Tull's first album This Was in 1968).
  • 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.[7]
  • George Braith inherited Kirk's technique of playing multiple saxophones.
  • Eric Burdon and War's debut 1970 release Eric Burdon Declares War has a track on it entitled "Roll On Kirk", which is a tribute to Kirk.
  • British reed player Dick Heckstall-Smith also emulated Kirk in playing multiple saxophones simultaneously.
  • Courtney Pine, a saxophonist from the UK, also uses circular breathing and plays two saxophones at once in live performance.[citation needed]
  • Jeff Coffin, solo artist and member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (from 1998 on), plays multiple saxophones simultaneously.
  • Thurston Moore wore a Rahsaan Roland Kirk T-shirt for a promo shoot for Sonic Youth's album Goo (1990).[8]
  • Hope Clayburn, one-time lead singer and multi-instrumentalist for funky band Deep Banana Blackout, was frequently known to hum and play flute and to sing while playing multiple saxophones at the same time, teasing common themes and soul standards.[citation needed]
  • Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist and multi-instrumentalist of Radiohead, acknowledged his respect and love for Kirk's music on the band's blog.[citation needed]
  • Drummer Ramon Lopez paid tribute to Rahsaan Roland Kirk in his 2002 album Duets 2 Rahsaan Roland Kirk, inviting nine different artists (Joëlle Léandre, Thierry Madiot, Harry Beckett, Majid Bekkas, Beñat Achiary...) for nine duets on nine compositions of Kirk's.
  • Guitarist Michael Angelo Batio mentioned in an interview with Ultimate Guitar Archive that Kirk's playing of two saxophones at once inspired him to create his "double guitar".[9]
  • T.J. Kirk was a San Francisco-based 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 and San Francisco-based band, the band's other members include Scott Amendola, Will Bernard, and John Schott.[10]
  • 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.[11]
  • Rahsaan Roland Kirk is the namesake of jazz artists Roland and Rahsaan Barber, brothers who play trombone and saxophone respectively.
  • There is a cafe and performing arts venue in San Jose, California, named after Kirk's instrument, called Cafe Stritch. It houses his Stritch, as well as his often worn top hat, and has held birthday celebrations to Kirk featuring Steve Turre and Marcus Shelby.


As leader[edit]

King Records
Argo/Cadet/Chess Records
Prestige Records
Mercury Records
Limelight Records
Verve Records
Atlantic Records
Warner Bros. Records
Posthumous releases of new material

As sideman[edit]

With Charles Mingus

With Roy Haynes

With Tubby Hayes

With Quincy Jones

With Tommy Peltier

With Jaki Byard

With Les McCann


  • Jones, Quincy (Composer). (1964). Big Band Bossa Nova [Phonograph]. Mercury. (Reissued on compact disc by Verve in 1998, 2005)
  • Kruth, John: Bright Moments. The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Welcome Rain Publishers, New York 2000 ISBN 1-56649-105-3
  • McLeod, Eric (Producer), & Roach, Jay (Director). (1997). Austin Powers: International man of mystery [DVD]. New Line Home Video
  • Kahan, Adam (Filmmaker). (2014). Rahsaan Roland Kirk, The Case of the Three Sided Dream [DVD]. Documentary


  1. ^ a b c d e http://www.allmusic.com/artist/p6898 "Genre: Jazz – Styles: Post-Bop, Avant-Garde Jazz, Modern Creative, Soul Jazz, Mainstream Jazz, Jazz Instrument, Saxophone Jazz"
  2. ^ a b Kernfeld, Barry. "Kirk, Roland." The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed. Ed. Barry Kernfeld. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved on 2009-02-01. "The year of his birth has been widely given as 1936, but his birth certificate gives 1935 and confirms Ronald, not Roland."
  3. ^ Rebecca Goodman, Barrett J. Brunsman (2005). This Day In Ohio History. Emmis Books. p. 367. ISBN 1578601916. 
  4. ^ Provenza, Paul; Dan Dion (2010). Satiristas: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians. HarperCollins. p. 109. ISBN 0061859346. 
  5. ^ "Recalling Jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Dead At 41". Jet (Johnson Publishing Company) 53 (14): 14–15. 22 December 1977. ISSN 0021-5996. 
  6. ^ Saunders, William (2010), Jimi Hendrix London, Roaring Forties Press. ISBN 978-0-9843165-1-9
  7. ^ Christopulos, J., and Smart, P., Van der Graaf Generator – The Book, p. 55. Phil and Jim publishers, 2005. ISBN 0-9551337-0-X
  8. ^ "Bilder von Thurston Moore – Entdecke Musik, Videos, Konzerte, Statistiken & Bilder bei Last.fm". Lastfm.de. 2009-04-03. Retrieved 2012-03-26. 
  9. ^ Michael Angelo Batio: I always wanted my guitars to be different and unique., Ultimate Guitar Archive
  10. ^ Bill Meredith T.J. Kirk – Biography AllMusic
  11. ^ "Guest List: Paul Weller". The Times. 8 August 2009. Retrieved 12 Feb 2011. 

External links[edit]