Roland Kirk

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Zappa, Jim "Motorhead" Sherwood and Roland Kirk performing together.

Roland Kirk, aka Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Ronald Theodore Kirk, August 7, 1936, Columbus, Ohio - December 5, 1977, Bloomington, Indiana) was a jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist, most famous for his dazzling musical experiments and ability to play several wind instruments at the same time.


Roland Kirk on the cover of his
seminal album Rip, Rig & Panic
(Mercury 1965)
with tracks inspired by Edgard Varèse

Born as Ronald Theodore Kirk in 1936, Kirk was able to see until age two, after which he became blind. He still managed to learn how to play various musical wind instruments, several at the same time too. He transposed the letters of his first name from Ronald to Roland, as a result of a dream, early in his career. He was a multi-reed sideman for Charles Mingus, until Kirk went solo in the early 1960s and started his own band. Arguably the most exciting saxophone soloist in jazz history, Kirk was a post-modernist before that term even existed. He played the continuum of jazz tradition as an instrument unto itself and felt little compunction about mixing and matching elements from the music's history, and his concoctions usually seemed natural, if not inevitable. Kirk's ability to play more than one wind-instrument at a time gave his music a distinctively intuitive edge, as he was effectively able to accompany himself. His renowned circular breathing technique also enabled him to sustain notes for unusually long periods. Kirk's early work echoes Zappa's musical approach. As stated on his album Rip, Rig & Panic (1965): "Some of the sounds I make with my horn; the rhythm section was playing free. Some of the tape sounds I got around the house - wind chimes, my voice amplified, the baby hollering. I slowed down some of the sounds and played them together. The head is written off a computer; I used the cycle of notes from a computer I once heard to make a line... the ending was done with an amplifier; I can shake it in a certain way to get those sounds. It was inspired by the music of Edgard Varèse."

In 1970 changed his name to Rashaan Roland Kirk, again the result of a dream. He continued performing until 1975, when he suffered a stroke. Afterwards Kirk tried performing again, but eventually passed away from a second stroke in 1977.

Zappa and Roland Kirk

Zappa, Jim "Motorhead" Sherwood and Roland Kirk performing together.

Roland Kirk is mentioned in the list of influences inside the sleeve of Freak Out! (1966), under the heading: These People Have Contributed Materially In Many Ways To Make Our Music What It Is. Please Do Not Hold It Against Them. In 1969 Zappa's band and Kirk's band performed together on stage twice, once during the Boston Globe Jazz Festival on 31 January and a second time on 29 June at the Florida Jazz Festival. [1] [2]

Zappa about Roland Kirk

"I met him backstage at the Boston Jazz Festival and asked him to play with us if he was interested in our music. Then, during our set, led by his attendant, he came up to the stage. As you know he's blind, but his body understood all of our signals. At one point everybody in the band was supposed to get down on their back and kick their feet in the air while they still keep playing. As soon as we got on our back, he also got his back. When we got up, he also got up. He grasped everything. He is an excellent musician. Three weeks later we played together again at the Florida Jazz Festival."

Frank Zappa, New Music Magazine interview, April 1976.

"The first time we played with Rahsaan Roland Kirk was at the (...) Boston Globe Jazz Festival. After his performance, when introduced to him backstage, I said I really liked what he was doing, and said that if he felt like joining us onstage during our set, he was more than welcome. In spite of his blindness, I believed we could accommodate whatever he wanted to do. We began our set, wending our atonal way toward a medley of 1950s-style honking saxophone numbers. During this fairly complicated, choreographed routine, Rahsaan, assisted by his helper (can't remember his name), decided to join in. In 1969, George Wein, impresario of the Newport Jazz Festival, decided it would be a tremendous idea to put the Mothers of Invention on a jazz tour of the East Coast. We wound up working in a package with Kirk, Duke Ellington and Gary Burton in Miami at the Jai Alai Fronton, and at another gig in South Carolina."

Frank Zappa, in The Real Frank Zappa Book (1989).


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