Roland Kirk was born on August 7, 1935 (the frequently seen 1936 birth date is incorrect) and got blinded soon after his birth. "When I was one or two a nurse came into work drunk or high or mad at somebody and she slipped and put too much medicine in my eyes."
Kirk began playing early on the garden hose at age six. He next took up trumpet at the age of nine after hearing the bugle boy at a summer camp where his parents acted as counsellors. He played trumpet in the school band, but a doctor advised against the strain trumpet-playing imposes on the eyes.
Educated at the Ohio State School for the Blind, he took up saxophone and clarinet from 1948 which he played with a school band from the age of twelve, and by 1951 was leading his own group for dances and playing with other bands around the Ohio area.
Dreams played an important part in Kirk's life and musical development. Born Ronald Kirk, Rahsaan felt compelled by a dream to transpose two letters in his first name to make Roland. After another dream about 1970 he added Rahsaan to his name.
At sixteen he dreamed he was playing three instruments at once, and the next day went to a music shop and tried out all the reed instruments. He was taken to the basement to be shown "the scraps", and found two archaic saxophones which had been used in turn-of-the-century Spanish military bands, the stritch and the manzello; the first is a kind of straight alto sax, and the second looks a little like an alto, but sounds more like a soprano. Kirk took these and worked out a way of playing them simultaneously with the tenor sax, producing three-part harmony by trick fingering. As there were often slight tuning discrepancies between the three instruments, the resulting sound could be harsh, almost with the characteristic of certain ethnic instruments, and this gave Kirk's music an added robustness. He sometimes soloed on all three separately and added flute, siren and clavietta (similar to the melodica used by Augustus Pablo and the Gang Of Four) to his armoury. With all three horns strung around his neck, and sporting dark glasses and a battered top hat, Kirk made quite a spectacle. He also used sirens, whistles and other sounds to heighten the drama of his performances.
The real point was that, although he loved to dally with simple R&B and ballads, he could unleash break-neck solos that sounded like a bridge between bebop dexterity and avant garde "outness".
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.
Rahsaan was an activist in getting support for what he termed 'Black Classical Music.' He participated in several takeovers of television talk shows during which he would demand more exposure for black jazz artists.
He made his first album in 1956, but it went virtually unnoticed. Then in 1960, through the help of Ramsey Lewis, he recorded for the Cadet label, and immediately caused controversy. People accused him of gimmmickry, and Kirk defended himself, saying that he did everything for a reason, and he heard sirens and things in his head when he played. He was, in fact, rooted very deeply in the whole jazz tradition, and knew all the early music, including the work of Jelly Roll Morton (and Fats Waller) in which sirens, whistles, car horns and human voices had figured to brilliant effect. For Kirk, jazz was 'black classical music', and he steeped in its wild, untamed spirit; in this he was 'pure' - there were virtually no discernible influences from European classical music in his work.
In 1961 he worked with Charles Mingus for four months, playing on the album 'Oh Yeah' and touring with him in California. His international reputation was burgeoning, and after his stint with Mingus he made his first trip to Europe, performing as soloist at the Essen jazz festival, West Germany. From 1963 he began a series of regular tours abroad with his own quartet, and played the first of several residencies at Ronnie Scott's club. For the rest of the 1960s and into the 1970s he led his group the 'Vibration Society' in clubs, concerts and major festivals throughout the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand .
Kirk was much loved, not only by his audiences but also by other musicians. He was unclassifiable: a completely original performer whose style carried in it the whole of jazz history from early New Orleans roots, through swing and bebop, to the abstraction of the 1960s and 1970s avant-garde. Throughout his career he recorded tributes to people he particularly loved, and they included Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Sidney Bechet, Don Byas, Roy Haynes, Charles Mingus, Clifford Brown, Barney Bigard and John Coltrane. Yet he could be classified neither as a traditionalist nor as an avant-gardist; his music was always of the present, but contained the essence of past forms.
Even in the 1990s his music does not sound dated – it sounds ever-present, beyond time. Playing one instrument – either tenor sax or the manzello – Kirk showed clearly that he was one of the great improvisers. He was an enthusiast who was always listening and learning, and he was generous in his encouragement of aspiring young musicians. He was a composer of memorable tunes: some of the better-known ones are 'From Bechet, Byas and Fats', 'No Tonic Pres', 'Bright Moments', 'Let Me Shake Your Tree', 'The Inflated Tear'.
Kirk was described to have "all the wild untutored quality of a street musician coupled with the subtlety of a modern jazz musician", and that "Hearing him, one can almost feel that music, like the Lord in 'Shine On Me', can 'heal the sick and raise the dead'."
His wife Dorthaan relates, "After suffering a cerebral vascular accident in November, 1975, it seemed that he would not regain the use of his right hand after several months of therapy. He, being the determined and strong-willed person he was, devised a method himself 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.