Rahsaan Roland Kirk, born in Ohio in 1935, was an influential jazz saxophonist known for his bombstatic live performances and ability to play several instruments at once.
Although he was born Ronald Theodore Kirk, he changed his name to Roland and added the name Rahsaan after hearing it in a dream. Due to a medical misstep early in his life, Kirk was blind from an early age. Rahsaan Roland Kirk was an expert in jazz history, allowing him to use his knowledge of older styles like swing and free jazz to give his own hard bop and soul jazz a unique character. Kirk was famous for incorporating unusual tones and noises in his recordings, and could play several saxophones at once with the help of circular breathing, leading some to accuse him of gimmickry. Regardless of these claims, Kirk’s reputation gradually grew in the jazz community, helped by a four-month stint with Charles Mingus in 1961.
Following his time with Mingus, Kirk traveled to Europe with his own quintet in the first of several international tours. For the next two decades, Kirk continued to tour with his band, appearing at jazz clubs and festivals in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. During this time, he developed a reputation for his outspokenness. He would frequently discuss civil rights and other topical social issues at his concert, all the while inflecting his speeches with absurd humor and satire.
Eventually, Kirk overcame the criticisms against him to become a favorite of audiences and musicians, largely due to his inimitable, abstracted style. His music is still praised today by his fans as timeless. One musician described Kirk as simultaneously possessing the wild, untutored style of a street performer alongside the âubtlety of a modern jazz musician.
Unlike many other famous jazz saxophonists, Kirk rarely played as a sideman. However, he did record with jazz greats such as Mingus and Quincy Jones. It is with Jones that he produced one of his most famous performances in the song Soul Bossa Nova, a huge hit upon its release in 1964 that was later re-popularized as the de facto theme for the Austin Powers series of movies.
Kirk suffered a debilitating stroke in 1975 that left him partially paralyzed, but he modified his instruments to allow him to play with one arm and continued to record and play concerts, even managing to play two instruments at once despite his disability. He suffered a second stroke in 1977 after a performance in Indiana and passed away. His music has influenced such diverse artists as trombonist Steve Turre, Jimi Hendrix and Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood.