Roland Kirk: The Forgotten Jewel of Jazz.

Rahsaan Roland KirkRoland Kirk (1935-1977) was a Jazz artists with some very unique techniques. For starters, one of the most well known qualities that Roland had was the ability to play multiple instruments at the same time. Typcially, he devised a system in which he could wear two or three alto-saxophones and put all the reeds in his mouth and play various harmonies with each instrument.

Roland grew up in Columbus Ohio in a neighbor hood known as flytown. He became blind at a very young age due to poor medical treatment. Roland often preferred to be the lead member in a band, rarely showing up as a sideman in a band. However, he worked with Quincy Jones on a project that became popularized by the film Austin powers.

His influences were rooted in soul jazz and hard bop, however, he had a vast understanding of Jazz history, which gave him a competitive edge when it came to composing. Like a lot of other musicians in the 60s, Kirk was outspoken about political issues and civil rights. He would use comedic banter and rants as a part of his show to attract more people.

In 1975, Kirk suffered a stroke which paralyzed one side of his body. However, he still managed to still play music and record albums. He then modified his instruments so he could play his instruments with one arm. In 1977, Kirk died from another stroke after performing in Bloomington, indiana.

“He typically appeared on stage with all three horns hanging around his neck, as well as a variety of other instruments, including flutes and whistles, and often kept a gong within reach. Kirk also played clarinetharmonicaEnglish horn, and recorders, and was a competent trumpeter. He often had unique approaches, using a saxophone mouthpiece on a trumpet or playing nose flute. He additionally used many non-musical devices, such as alarm clocks, sirens, or a section of common garden hose (dubbed “the black mystery pipes”). His studio recordings also used tape-manipulated musique concrète and primitive electronic sounds” (Wikipedia)

Listen to the solo starting at about 2:00, You will hear two lines of saxophones happening simultaneously, which, are both played by Kirk. It’s quite an impressive feat of how he switches the lead melody from one instrument to another in order to create a new, neat texture in the music.

In the video below, you are able to see the technique in action. He puts one hand on Sax A and another hand on Sax B and then blows into both while maintaining some sort of chord within the key of the composition.

Another interesting element of his talents is his circular breathing. He utilizes this technique in order to create “Un-humanistic” breathing patterns. He has been known to hold a single note for twenty minutes! Something that also defines his musical quality is the phrasing he is able to do because of his circular breathing. You can really hear the impact of this technique when he plays various phrases on the flute.

INTERESTING TIDBIT: He was the flute player on the Quincy Jones track “Soul Bossa Nova”, which was re-popularized in the Austin Powers films.


“Rahsaan Roland Kirk.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.