Monday, 24 August 2020


The unpredictable contortions and theatrical excesses of Roland Kirk’s career vividly chronicles the dilemma of black consciousness in jazz over two vital decades. To funk or not to funk. Whether ‘tis nobler to go with the flow or to chart for the heart. On the sleeve of the Benny Golson LP Kirk is sharp hipster cat, oozing Bop left-bank existentialism from Dizzy Gillespie berry to goatee, later on, with the adoption of his ‘spiritual’ Rahsaan prefix he’s all Muslim kaftan weirdness, and by the time of ‘Volunteered Slavery’ (1969, Atlantic 588-207) he’s into a spaced-out PVC boiler-suit ethos – playing three instruments simultaneously in a spectacular circular-breathing obstacle course jazz circus. 

Kirk, a large physically formidable presence, died 5 December 1977 aged just forty-two. He reputedly played forty instruments. He was born Ronald Theodore Kirk, 7 August 1935 in Columbus, Ohio. Thirty-six years later the Columbus mayor would proclaim a city-wide ‘Roland Kirk Day’, paying homage to the musician at a press conference, while the man himself would be giving an Ohio State University lecture. But the beginnings of Kirk’s career were less auspicious, blinded at the age of two from ‘improper medical treatment,’ he studied at the Ohio State School For The Blind. 

An early album sleeve tells how the unprepossessing black child had an ‘offbeat instrument bag’ from the age of six, striving to extract coherent sounds from a garden hose. Such is the stuff of legend. But his parents were counsellors at a local Summer Camp and Kirk became camp bugle boy, then trumpet-player in the school band, until by his mid-teens was touring with a R&B group. On the advice of a doctor who felt the strain was too great, Kirk switched to clarinet and sax. The tenor sax would remain the instrument on which his style would be built, yet it was a style to be channelled in many diverse directions.

‘After dreaming one night he was playing three instruments at once, Kirk went to a local music store too see which horns had the sound that suited him’ continues the legend-shaping sleeve-notes. ‘After rummaging around in a basement for what the instrument dealer referred to as ‘the scraps’ he came across the manzello, which looks like at alto but has a big, fat, odd-looking bell, and the stritch, which resembles a soprano with a thyroid condition.’ These oddities would be lugged around the world, snorted at ‘Ronnie Scotts’ in London’s Soho, at the ‘Village Gate’ off Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, at Festivals and concerts through all the strangeness to come. They would be played individually, in tandem, or in various odd combinations with other, more conventional instruments. Kirk’s showmanship was unique – but not exactly unprecedented, thirty years earlier Wilbur Sweatman had reputedly played three clarinets simultaneously. 

In his early twenties – bristling with manzello, stritch, tenor sax, whistle-siren and flute, he began to wander into Louisville and Chicago jam sessions. He joined Charles Mingus for a period, began to acquire merit and approving asides that, with a certain logical inevitability, led to his first record date in 1960. At this time he was scuffing with a young black piano-payer called Tommy Tucker. In 1975 Kirk would acknowledge the association by recording Tucker’s huge R&B dance-hit “High Heel Sneakers” (on his ‘The Case Of The Three-Sided Dream In Audio Colour’ LP 1975, Atlantic SD1674). 

The first years of the sixties might be the last high-water mark of pure jazz acceptance. Since the turn of that decade black protest in jazz became more explicit, taking on tones of anger, violence, social and political relevance. Music as uncompromising as Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite”, and the apparently anarchistic chartings of the jagged, often atonal music’s of Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. The whole New Thing, the whole New Jazz which – although often impenetrably intellectual, also expressed the private language of black ambition, and in this sense represented a re-immersion in ghetto spirit. Later – during the seventies, freshly affluent black audiences would be drawn away by the energies of Disco Funk, but as the fifties bled into the sixties Detroit was still a place where African-Americans work mean shifts making autos they can’t afford. For them, the Blues smacks too much of the earth, and its electric child R&B lacks the intellectual commitment of the jazz musicians. Kirk spoke of jazz being ‘black classical music’, and for their newly liberated aspirations jazz was an art associated with black consciousness, at least since the Muslim flirtations and the arrogant posturings of the BeBop insurrection. 

According to German jazz critic Joachim Berendt, Kirk had ‘the wild, untutored quality of a street musician coupled with the subtlety of a modern jazzman,’ a bifurcation of talent that was at once his strength – and also, arguably, his weakness. By the time of the 1962 ‘Downbeat’ critics poll, he scooped the miscellaneous instrumentalist section, and as the year fed into 1963 a UK tour prompted ‘Melody Maker’ to headline Kirk ‘the most controversial musician in jazz’. 

Much of Kirk’s formative early stuff from this period, largely recorded for the Mercury label, later fell off catalogue. Made up from a 1963 session ‘Reeds And Deeds’ (Mercury SMWL 21032) sees Kirk alongside Virgil Jones (trumpet), Charlie Greenlee (trombone) and Walter Perkins (drums). Then – cut towards the end of his Mercury stay, there were sessions teaming him with the Benny Golson Orchestra, with music produced at these dates making up one side of a subsequent LP (‘The Roland Kirk Quartet Meets The Benny Golson Orchestra’, 1964, Mercury 20-002). The orchestra setting was probably an A&R concept, yet it works surprisingly well, the two men mesh together despite Kirk’s greater musical breadth of vision, with some fine examples of Kirk’s early playing. Side one includes his reading of the Charlie Mingus tune “Ecclusiastics”, a recognition of an earlier fruitful Mingus partnership that resulted in two fine albums, one of them recorded live at Carnegie Hall. Kirk also tributes the great bass player again on “Kingus Mingus”, a sequence on his ‘Left And Right’ album (1969, Atlantic 588178). The Benny Golson album, in the meantime, goes on to feature a Kirk work-out called “Variation On A Theme”, an idea lifted from modern classical composer Paul Hindemith. Its vague oriental overtones prompts ‘Gramophone’ magazine to suggest a passing resemblance to the current Fry’s Turkish Delight TV-ad. 

A later album provides a further, if less pleasing, juxtaposition. ‘A Meeting Of The Times’ (1972, Atlantic SD 1630) teams Kirk with the wobbling vibrato of ex-Duke Ellington vocalist Al Hibbler, with largely flawed results, maybe due to the singer’s advancing years? In the meantime – the second side of the Golson LP is made up of Kirk’s quartet pieces, with Harold Mabern (piano) Abdullah Rafik (bass) – both of whom feature on ‘Reeds And Deeds’, plus Sonny Brown (drums). In this more familiar setting, the Kirk quartet play pieces like “I’ve Got Your Number”, for the most part a pleasing enough piece – until the coda, which erupts into an amazing duel between manzello and tenor, with Kirk playing both simultaneously! Such moments, oddly aligned among more conventional numbers such as “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square”, prove unique tasters for the coming wildness and weirdness. 

In October 1966 Kirk played ‘Ronnie Scott’s’ with the legendary Phil Seaman on drums and Dave Green on bass. Phil, a bastion of British Jazz, was later to feature in Ginger Baker’s Airforce. During the performance of a piece called “Whistle Man”, Kirk hands out little bamboo whistles to the club audience, on which they’re expected to join in. He also demonstrates his amazing ‘circular breathing’ technique which – like some Zen exercise, consists of continually inhaling through the nostrils while exhaling through the mouth, allowing the musician to play extended solos without pausing for breath. Playing music that, according to journalist Chris Welch ‘lurches crazily, but creatively from the humorous to the bizarre, from the harsh to the beautiful’ (‘Melody Maker’). This technique, also adopted by Harry Carney, is taken to its manic marathon extremes on a twenty-one-minute continuous tenor solo called “Saxophone Concerto” on an October 1973 album (‘Prepare Thyself To Deal With A Miracle’, Atlantic SD 1640). 

Such apparent eccentricity meant that Kirk’s style never slots easily into a category, neither avant-garde nor mainstream. Instead, his obsessional preoccupation was with sound, pure sound. He told Welch ‘it’s like the piano where each key is an instrument and a challenge to the player’ – a perfect, and then perfectly unconventional view of instruments as ‘sound machines’, devices for generating sound. In a different field, John Cage takes the idea to its logical fulfilment in his “Music For Prepared Piano” by totally ignoring every conventional precept of piano playing. To a lesser extent, Kirk uses the pads on his flute unconventionally, to produce a kind of ‘percussion’. Bestrung with diverse and self-customised instruments his experiments in eclecticism are based on whatever unusual sound they can be induced to produce when played solo, or in different combinations. 

He even experiments with tapes of electronic music. 

A couple more early albums were then enjoying reissue interest. ‘Rip, Rig And Panic’ (1965, Trip TLP-5592) – a name later adopted by Neneh Chery’s extreme 1980s post-Punk band, which has Kirk playing against Jaki Byard (piano), Richard Davis (bass) and powerhouse drummer Elvin Jones, a set that – according to ‘Melody Maker’ draws inspiration from almost ‘every jazz era’. Plus the influential ‘Kirk’s Work’ (1961, Prestige PRLP 7210), which sees him sharing the masthead billing with Jack – later ‘Brother’ Jack McDuff. Although the organist was later to become group leader in his own right, on this set he seems content to embroider around the edges of Kirk’s multiple instrumentation, but in no way can his contribution be considered anything less that dynamic, and again the fusion works well. Arthur ‘Art’ Taylor (drums) and Joe Benjamin (bass) flesh out the sound with compulsive walking rhythms on the Kirk-composed Gillespie tribute “Three For Dizzy”, and Kirk-arranged “Skater’s Waltz” from an original by French classical pianist-composer Emil Waldteufel. 

The McDuff collaboration also features a Kirk cut called “Funk Underneath”, and it’s tempting to suggest that the Funk content was to ‘come out from underneath’ during subsequent years when, after quitting Mercury he entered the second phase of his career with the more sympathetic Atlantic records. In January 1967 he played a return three-week stint at ‘Ronnie Scott’s’, coming from gigs on the continent, before flying back to his New Jersey home. But as the sixties blur uneasily into the seventies the musical commitment to jazz seemed to lose its edge of centrality. It was too cerebral. It lacks the feel of the street. Motown, Elridge Cleaver, Stax and Soul siphon off the audience, leaving jazz musicians playing to white college kids too busy taking thesis-notes on social significance to listen to their intellectual sloganeering. 

Kirk attempts a near-overkill rearguard action. He leads the disruption of the ‘Merv Griffin’ CBS-TV show as a protest against television’s conspicuous lack of black jazz musicians. Chanting placard-carrying demonstrators bring the show to a halt while Lee Morgan and Kirk perform impromptu jazz from the audience. This was the media direct-action technique later employed by Abbie Hoffman against David Frost. Kirk also aims articulate rhetoric at Ed Sullivan’s monopoly networked TV slot, with the result that in February 1971 he’s allowed a token slot on the CBS show playing alongside Archie Shepp, Charlie Mingus and Roy Haynes. 

Kirk ties in this anti-racist politicising with a series of poorly-received albums drawing energy from Soul. ‘Volunteered Slavery’ (Atlantic SD 1534), issued in late 1969, neatly straddles the period. The first side features studio takes of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” and Aretha Franklin’s Bacharach-David hit “I Say A Little Prayer”. Less impressively adventurous, two later cuts – “Spirits Up Above” and “Search For The Reason Why” use massed vocals called the Roland Kirk Spirit Choir – likely made up of Kirk’s own multi-tracked voice. However, the title number builds to a classic roaring climax that continues onto the second side, recorded live at the 7 July 1968 Newport Jazz Festival. In fact the recording was not taken from Kirk’s main set, but from the encore, which may account for the hysterical audience reaction. Kirk works with a trio rhythm section, tributes John Coltrane, and plays with demonic possession, particularly on the flute-piece closing track “Three For The Festival’. 

It’s said that Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson based his entire flute style on such a Kirk piece! 

For ‘Natural Black Invention: Root Strata’ (September 1971, Atlantic SD 1578) the sleeve-notes inform that ‘with a few minor exceptions Rahsaan Roland Kirk is the only musician on this album.’ While the Soul inroads continue on the April 1972 ‘Blacknuss’ (Atlantic K 40358) which features Cissy Houston – fresh from her work with Doris Troy and Dionne Warwick, singing on the Kirk-penned title-track as well as the standout Gloria Gaynor hit “Never Can Say Goodbye”. Ace session-man Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie – veteran of Larry Coryell and Steely Dan gigs and later a Hummingbird member plays drums, while Kirk weaves his way through an odd Soul-Jazz collection, from Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On/ Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl”, “I Love You Yes I Do”, and even David Gates’ romantic “Make It With You”. 

There are Leon Thomas’ Soul-tinged vocals on Kirk’s “Dream” on the flawed ‘A Meeting Of The Times’, while Dee Dee Bridgewater and Jeanne Lee sing slogans ‘it’s about time we started checkin’ out our beautiful black miracle’ on ‘Prepare Thyself To Deal With A Miracle’, an album that closes uncompromisingly with “Dance Of Revolution”. If the first few years of the decade see a steady adjustment of his jazz reputation at the expense of this Soul content, a couple of hefty retrospectives chart the process. For the double-vinyl ‘The Art Of Rahsaan Roland Kirk: The Atlantic Years’ (1973, Atlantic SD 2-303), Kirk’s melodic composition “Lady’s Blues” features strings, then he runs the swinging “Afro-Blue” into the one-man-band performance of “Baby Let Me Shake Your Tree”. Yet the selection also focuses attention on the consistently exciting underpinning of the Atlantic label session-men, seasoned musicians such as drummer Steve Gadd – highly rated among Rock cognoscenti, trombonist Dick Griffin and drummer Sonny Brown who’d played with Kirk since 1963, guitarist Cornel Dupree (on “Blacknuss”) and pianist Ron Burton. 

There’s also an impressive ‘Bright Moments’ (1973, Atlantic SD 2-907) double-set captured live at San Francisco’s ‘Keystone Korner’ – ‘The World’s First Psychedelic Jazz Club’, with Kirk’s jive-talking banter and Todd Barkan on synthesiser. By their process of selection, both sets forcefully prove that Kirk had lost none of his fiery ability, and that beneath the sloganeering of the more recent sessions there still lurks the heart of a jazzman. 

But there were other forces at work within Kirk’s eclectic music that also conspired to attack his critical integrity. White Rock was forging out on wild acid-fuelled free-form expeditions to inner consciousness via electronic experiment and the use of ‘pure sound’ effects. Kirk’s philosophy was all-embracing enough too glimpse beyond Charles Lloyd’s attempt to gatecrash this market – in many ways Kirk had already pre-empted many of Rock’s ventures into extemporisation at earlier stages in his career. With ‘The Case Of The Three Sided Dream In Audio Colour’ he came up with an album that – in conceptual terms, could have been as innovatory as Miles Davis’ apocalyptical ‘Bitches Brew’ (March 1970), except where the execution somewhat betrays the grandeur of its aspirations. It was a unique three-sided double-album (an idea later picked up on a Taj Mahal set, if memory serves), which features a thirty-eight-second sequence of galloping horses – played backwards, and eight “Revolution No.9”-type ‘dream sequences’ of muted ‘dub’ conversations drifting in and out of focus, with barking dogs, loops, and what would later be termed sampled sounds (the snatched voices of Paul Robeson and Billie Holiday). Spaced between these musique-concrète sections are two alternate takes of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” (the theme later used for the 1973 movie ‘The Sting’) one ‘Done In The Style Of The Blues’, two versions of the standard “Bye Bye Blackbird”, plus attention-grabbing titles “Freaks For The Festival” and “Echoes Of Primitive Ohio And Chilli Dogs”. Produced in New York’s Regent Sound Studios by Joel Dorn, it’s an oddly intriguing and only occasionally infuriating album, which brought Kirk’s long and patchy association with Atlantic to an end. 

The subsequent Warner Brothers contract saw the period of experimentation abruptly and cruelly terminated. Shorty after the release of ‘The Case Of The Three Sided Dream In Audio Colour’ Kirk suffered a stroke. Following an initial recuperation period he found that he’d permanently lost the use of his right hand. Yet if he was subsequently forced to opt for a more conventional approach, his single-handedness was not allowed to stint his sense of presence. He had his tenor engineered to fit one hand, and even added a vertically-played flute, harmonica and kazoo to his arsenal! But his determined and ingenious recovery was short-lived. A further stroke killed him. 

In retrospect, Kirk’s contribution to the jazz-rock crossover was not great. The commercial form of fusion evolved by Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and Larry Coryell has a tendency to be a music castrated of its Rock ‘n’ Roll excitement but robbed of much of its jazz subtlety too. An uneasy hybrid, combining the low points of both, with the essential value of neither. Kirk was often clumsy in his translation of sounds, and created albums that were occasionally overstated, yet on sets such as ‘The Inflated Tear’ (1968, Atlantic 588-112) or ‘Left And Right’ he proved that his style of eclecticism could be made to work effectively. Derek Jewell recalled seeing Kirk’s last ‘Ronnie Scott’s’ stint, commenting ‘artistry and virtuosity may be admirable. Allied with courage they are irresistible’ (‘Sunday Times’, 7 November 1970). 

Through the sixties and the first half of the seventies the development of Kirk’s music charted the vagaries, and the dilemmas of jazz – an art-form caught up in ambiguous times. He chose to meet its challenges head on, neither relying on nostalgia for outmoded styles, nor taking the easy route of playing cop-out electric muzak. If it’s explorations have now been forcibly ended then it’s jazz’s loss. 

Published in: 
‘HAT no.6’ 
(UK – March 1978)


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