Jazz innovator Roland Kirk earned a reputation as a multi-instrumentalist and was often seen on stage playing up to three saxophones simultaneously. He was born today in 1936.
Ronald Theodore Kirk aka Rashaan Roland Kirk was born in Columbus, Ohio, USA.”The master of black classical music” was struck by blindness almost from birth and played various brass and woodwind instruments in his school band.
His trademark unconventional style of playing multiple instruments simultaneously had its roots in the reject bins of a local music shop, when the 16 year old Kirk acquired a trio of unwanted saxophones and began to develop a method of breathing and finger positioning to play all three – claiming that he was attempting to recreate the sounds he heard in his head.
Leading his own Quartet for a studio session in 1956, the resulting album ”Triple Threat” suffered distribution problems and it was to be another four years before Kirk made a breakthrough. That came with a Quintet on the “Introducing…” album, following that up by collaborating with Hammond supremo “Brother” Jack McDuff and then fellow innovator Charles Mingus in Sextet recordings.
Albums such as 1964′s flute-heavy “I Talk To the Spirits” gained Kirk a following in Europe, while he also continued to push the boundaries of accepted practice, introducing an unorthodox range of household items as instruments. These included whistles, sirens and even a garden hose – all of which gave those who accused him of gimmickry further ammunition.
Appearing at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival, Kirk’s set was subsequently released on the Atlantic label as “Volunteered Slavery” and included radically reworked versions of “I Say A Little Prayer” and “My Cherie Amour.” And similar processes were at work two years later with the “Blacknuss” long player, when well-known tracks including “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “My Girl” and even “The Old Rugged Cross” surrendered to the Kirk vision.
By 1975, Kirk was firmly established as an avant garde artist, with “The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color” containing a mammoth 20 track on three sides of double-grooved LP that formed something of a musical collage and included samples of other artists including Billie Holliday. The fourth side meanwhile was left apparently blank – punctuated by two spoken word pieces from Kirk.
“Other Folks Music” the following year proved to be his last for Atlantic and after relocating to Warners and recording “The Return of The 5000lb man”, he suffered a second stroke (the first in 1975 had caused him to lose the use of one arm, but he continued to perform). Kirk passed away in December 1977.
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And here’s some footage of Roland in action: