Roland Kirk


(b. Columbus, Ohio, 7th Aug 1936  --  d. 5th Dec 1977)

Kirk was blinded soon after his birth, and was educated at Ohio State School for the Blind. He played saxophone and clarinet 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. 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 harmonyby 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 also used sirens, whistles and other sounds to heighten the drama of his performances.
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 thre 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.

In 1975, Kirk had a stroke which partially paralysed one side of his body. With tremendous courage he began performing again with one arm - an almost impossible handicap for a saxophonist - and he managed to tour internationally, play some festivals and appear on TV. In 1977 a second stroke caused his death.

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".

J.E. Berendt said that Kirk had "all the wild untutored quality of a street musician coupled with the subtlety of a modern jazz musician", and Michael Ullman wrote: "Hearing him, one can almost feel that music, like the Lord in 'Shine On Me', can 'heal the sick and raise the dead'."