Born: August 7, 1936 | Died: December 5, 1977 Primary Instrument: Reeds
Kirk was born Ronald Theodore Kirk in Columbus, Ohio, but felt compelled by a dream to transpose two letters in his first name to make Roland. In 1970, Kirk added Rahsaan to his name.
Preferring to lead his own groups, Kirk rarely performed as a sideman, though he did record with arranger Quincy Jones, Roy Haynes and had especially notable stints with Charles Mingus. He played the lead flute and solo on Jones' Soul Bossa Nova, a song popularized 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 on many elements of the music's history, from ragtime to swing and free jazz. Kirk also regularly explored classical and pop music.
Kirk played and collected a number of musical instruments, mainly various saxophones, clarinets and flutes. His main instruments were a tenor saxophone and two obscure saxophones: the manzello (similar to a soprano sax) and the stritch (a straight alto sax lacking the instrument's characteristic 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 harmonica, english horn, 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 extramusical sounds in his art, such as alarm clocks, whistles, sirens, a section of common garden hose (the black mystery pipes) and even primitive electronic sounds (before such things became commonplace).
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 observers thought that Kirk's bizarre onstage appearance and simultaneous multi-instrumentalism were just gimmicks, especially when coming from a blind man, but these opinions usually vanished when Kirk actually started playing. 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 mind.
Kirk was also a major exponent and practitioner of circular breathing. Using this technique, Kirk was not only able to sustain a single note for virtually any length of time; he could also play 16th-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, believes 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, of course, on the CD reissue of this album. These spoken-word segments reflected the tenor of the times, so to speak, with the rather pessimistic theme that humanity had blown its chance to live in a world of peace and harmony. But this was entirely in keeping with the fact that, despite his loss at an early age of his visual acuity, Rahsaan was very much on top of societal developments, racial and economic injustice and disparity. (Indeed, he had participated many years previously in protests against the failure of TV show hosts like Merv Griffin to hire any non- white musicians.) 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 M. Nixon's involvement in Watergate. The 3-Sided Dream album was a concept album, somewhat akin to the Beatles' psychedelic phase in the incorporation 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 1975, Kirk suffered a major stroke which led to partial paralysis of one side of his body. Despite this, he continued to perform, modifying his instruments himself to enable him to play with only one arm. At a live performance at Ronnie Scott's club in London he even managed to play two instruments, and carried on to tour internationally and even appear on TV.
He died from a second stroke in 1977 after performing at the Bluebird nightclub in Bloomington, Indiana.