Jazz music has no shortage of eccentric characters among its ranks, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk was right in step with many of the masters of his time. Today is the talented multi-instrumentalist’s birthday and we look back at a life that ended far too short.
Ronald Theodore Kirk was born on this day in 1935 and raised in Columbus, Ohio. According to accounts, he went blind at the age of two due to poor treatment of an illness. Despite his handicap, he became a student of the clarinet and by 15, he was playing tenor sax for several R&B bands. Shortly after, he embarked on a career as a band leader and sideman appearing on dozens of recordings from 1955 to 1977.
While still a teenager, Kirk began toying with his instruments and altering them so he could play them simultaneously, mastering the art of “circular breathing” in the process. The technique allowed him to play long sets for 20 to 30 minutes at a time without having to pause for a breath.
With his over-the-top outfits an array of instruments hanging from his neck, Kirk stood out as a curious figure. Between sets, Kirk was known for speaking out on civil rights and Black history, and even put comedian Jay Leno, who toured with him, in the hot seat by making jokes about his race.
After suffering a stroke in 1975, Kirk was able to modify his instruments again so that he could play with one arm. However, a second stroke in 1977 after a show in Indiana ended his life.
A biography, Bright Moments: The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, was written by John Kruth about Kirk’s work with Quincy Jones and other artists.
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