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Rahsaan Roland Kirk (August 7, 1935[1] – 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[1] in Columbus, Ohio, 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. By fifteen 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." Hank heard him and said he was unbelievable when as a youth. 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." Kirk felt compelled by a dream to transpose two letters in his first name to make '"Roland".[2] In 1970, Kirk added "Rahsaan" to his name after hearing it in a dream.[3]


Kirk's multi-instrumentality was credited as having a substantial musical conception. This inclusivity included the blues, a love of stride piano and early jazz, and appreciation for pop tunes. But his vision was much wider than most of his contemporaries. According to producer Joel Dorn, he was also hugely knowledgeable about classical music. Pieces by Saint-Saens, 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.'[2]

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.[4][5]

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!"[6] []

In 1975, Kirk suffered a major stroke which led to partial paralysis of one side of his body. 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 to appear on television.[7]

He died from a second stroke in 1977, the morning after performing in the Frangipani Room of the Indiana University Student Union in Bloomington, Indiana.[8]

Instruments and techniques

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.

Kirk played and collected a number of musical instruments, mainly various saxophones, clarinets and flutes. His main saxes were a standard tenor saxophone, 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). A number of his instruments were exotic or homemade. Kirk modified instruments himself to accommodate his simultaneous playing technique.[9] Critic Gary Giddins wrote that Kirk's tenor playing alone was enough to bring him "renown".[3]

He typically appeared on stage with all three horns hanging around his neck, 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.[3]

Kirk was also an influential flautist, including recorders. According to Giddins, Kirk was the first major jazz innovator on flute after the 1964 death of Eric Dolphy.[3] Kirk employed 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.

He played a variety of other instruments, like whistles; often kept a gong within reach; the clarinet, harmonica, English horn, and was a competent trumpeter.[10] He had unique approaches, such as using a saxophone mouthpiece on a trumpet.

He also used many 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.[3]

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 "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.

Material loss

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Rahsaan Roland Kirk among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.[11]

Legacy and influence

  • 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.”[12]
  • 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.[12]
  • Guitarist Jimi Hendrix "idolized" Kirk, and even hoped to collaborate with him one day.[13]
  • 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.[14][15] Kirk and Zappa performed live together at least once, at the 1969 Boston Globe Jazz Festival.[16]
  • Derek Trucks is not only a huge Kirk fan he has recorded Kirk’s composition “Volunteered Slavery” on his group’s studio album, 2006’s Songlines, and on the 2004 album Live at Georgia Theatre 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..." [12]
  • 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.[17]
  • 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".[18]
  • 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.[19]
  • 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.[20]
  • Davey Payne's twin saxophone solo on "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick" (Ian Dury & the Blockheads, 1978) was inspired by Kirk.[21]
  • Terry Edwards' twin saxophone solo on "The Ministry of Defence" by PJ Harvey (2016) was inspired by Kirk.[22]


With Jaki Byard

With Tubby Hayes

  • Tubby's Back in Town (Smash, 1962)

With Roy Haynes

With Quincy Jones

With Les McCann

With Charles Mingus

With Tommy Peltier

  • The Jazz Corps Under the Direction of Tommy Peltier (Pacific Jazz, 1967)
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