Here’s a clip of jazz innovator Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who was widely known for his ability and penchant for playing several woodwind instruments at the same time, some of which he invented himself. Although his field was primarily jazz, his interest in R&B enabled him to cross over into working with blues and rock musicians, as well as covering non-standard jazz material.
The first time I saw a photo of Kirk, I thought that I would never understand jazz. Yet, Kirk was a unique figure in jazz, not just because of his outlandish stage presence, and the almost violent image of him forcing sound out of all of those instruments, but that he saw no boundaries be they musical or physical. He was blind from the age of two, and thus the importance he placed on sound was in a league of his own on a personal level. I suppose how his set up looked to others wasn’t that important to him.
Kirk learned trumpet and clarinet as a child, and picked up the sax and flute when becoming a professional musician while in his teens. In addition to these traditional instrument, he was also interested in an instrument called the “stritch”, and another called the “manzello”, both being derived from alto and soprano saxophones respectively.
Kirk made a splash starting in the 1950s, but really made a steady name for himself in the 60s, playing with Charles Mingus and also with Quincey Jones. That’s Kirk playing the lead flute on Jones’ “Soul Bossa Nova”, which was featured more recently as the opening theme to Austin Powers: International Man of Mistery in 1997.
Kirk was interested in the spectrum of jazz and African-American music as a whole, drawing influence from bop, swing, ragtime, and ‘cool’ jazz, yet also playing pop tunes and R&B numbers. During performances, he would play tenor sax as a primary instrument, while playing harmonies with flutes, and other woodwinds at the same time. The flute he would play through his nose! He was his own horn section.
Kirk played with unmatched intensity, ratcheting up a solo just when it seemed that there was nowhere else to go. Further to this, he developed a mastery in a breathing method called ‘circular breathing’ which allowed him to sustain notes indefinitely. Yet, his constant pushing of his own physical limits led to health issues which included a stroke in 1975 that caused permanent paralysis down one side of his body. He soldiered on anyway, adapting his playing and his instruments accordingly, even though he could only play with one hand. However, a second stoke would end his life in 1977.
Another thing I wondered about Kirk when looking at pictures of him was “why would it occur to him to play all of those instruments at once”. Well, the answer is standard, even if the method was not. He was trying to create the sound his was hearing in his head.
For more information about Rahsaan Roland Kirk, check out the official Rahsaan Roland Kirk website.
And for more music, there’s always the Rahsaan Roland Kirk MySpace Page.