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Wed, 08.07.1935

Roland Kirk, a jazz purist

Roland Kirk

*Roland Kirk was born on this date in 1935. He was an Black jazz musician.

From Columbus, Ohio, he lost his sight at an early age when a negligent nurse came into work and put too much medicine in his eyes.  Kirk was educated at the Ohio School for the Blind.  When he was 16, the idea of playing three instruments at once came to him in a dream. Dreams played an important part in Kirk's life and musical development. He dreamed of playing two saxophones simultaneously and immediately set out to make this a reality.  Kirk would later become a popular figure in the Midwest working in bands with Ohio musicians Hank Marr, Frank Foster, Snooky Young and Bobby Miller.

He found two antique saxophones in a pawnshop and christened them the manzello (a derivative of the soprano saxophone) and the stritch (a derivative of the straight alto saxophone). Along with the tenor, these saxophones comprised the "triple threat" mentioned in his first recording. In 1960 Kirk moved to New York City, joining the  Charles Mingus band in 1961. Kirk's band-mates were Eric Dolphy, Danny Richmond and Jackie Byard, and the exposure helped to introduce the young virtuoso to mainstream jazz audiences.

Kirk's most productive period was from 1965 to 1975 when he recorded a series of albums for Atlantic Records. His 1968 Inflated Tear addressed his blindness and his 1969 Volunteered Slavery was the flash point for his social activism on behalf of working musicians.  This activism peaked in 1970 when Kirk became violent on an episode of the Dick Cavett Show.  Kirk was also a highly innovative flutist, using many unorthodox techniques in his playing, especially simultaneously singing and playing, his most famous example of which is You Did It, You Did It from “We Free Kings,” his first release for Mercury.

While the techniques that Kirk used were not his in origin (circular breathing is a necessity in playing the Australian aboriginal didjeridu and several performers played three clarinets at once as early as the 1920's), he brought musicality to these novelty tricks.  Another dream led to his adding the name "Rahsaan" around 1970. Rahsaan was an activist in getting support for what he termed "Black Classical Music." After suffering a cerebral vascular incident in November 1975, it seemed that he would not regain the use of his right hand after several months of therapy. His determination devised a method that enabled him to play his instruments with the use of only his left hand.

Actively performing and recording, he made several tours and albums after this first stroke. He suffered another stroke and died in Bloomington, Indiana on December 5, 1977 at the age of 41. The Vibration Society, a tribute band, existed for a time after his death.

Reference:
A Century of Jazz by Roy Carr
Da Capo Press, New York
Copyright 1997
ISBN 0-306-80778-5

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