Roland Kirk - tenor sax, stritch, flute, manzello, clarinet, nose flute; Dick Griffin - trombone; Rahn Burton - piano; Joe Texidor - tambourine, vocals; Vernon Martin - bass; Charles Crosby - drums
When avant-garde pioneer Rahsaan Roland Kirk made his Newport Jazz Festival debut in 1962 he was billed as "Discovery of the Year." Six years later, Kirk returned to Newport for his second appearance, then got the call once again from Newport impresario George Wein the following year. For that third Newport appearance, on July 4, 1969, the iconic Kirk found himself on an all-rock bill, sandwiched between Blood, Sweat & Tears and Brit guitar hero Jeff Beck. Knowing his audience on that particular Friday night in 1969, the sightless multi-reed virtuoso walked onto the Freebody Park stage and started mock-berating the "jive pot-smoking city slicker hipsters" in the audience for not cheering loudly enough after he introduced his crew, which included longtime piano associate Rahn Burton, trombonist Dick Griffin, bassist Vernon Martin, drummer Charles Crosby and percussionist/vocalist Joe Texidor. Kirk further stated: "You better come on and get with us. You might have your favorites, but you better think that your favorites got something from all of us on this bandstand." He proceeds to lay out an insightful sociological rap about the white and black keys on the piano working together to make music (predating the Paul McCartney-Stevie Wonder meditation on color blindness, "Ebony and Ivory," by 13 years). And with that, Kirk and company launch into a spirited rendition of "Volunteered Slavery," the title track of his current album on Atlantic Records at the time (which included live performances from his 1968 Newport appearance). Like many of his signature tunes, Kirk plays two horns simultaneously on this anthemic number.
Next up is a lengthy extrapolation on the Burt Bacharach tune "I Say a Little Prayer," which again has Kirk playing two horns simultaneously on the familiar head before engaging in some raucous exchanges on tenor sax with trombonist Griffin. Pianist Burton also gets plenty of room for extreme stretching on this freewheeling jam. That high-energy modal romp was supposed to conclude Kirk's Newport set. Kirk announces, "We've been asked to leave the bandstand peacefully," but the adoring crowd wouldn't let him leave, demanding an encore. Wein relents and lets the band play one final number, and they deliver with a raucous, earthy blues that has Kirk quoting from Coltrane's "Bessie's Blues" while also engaging in some conversational call-and-response exchanges with trombonist Griffin. This bluesy meditation eventually morphs into a spirited tambourine-shaking gospel romp, which has Kirk testifying over the top on tenor sax, bringing this Newport performance to an ecstatic close.
A visionary player-composer-bandleader, Kirk mixed and matched elements from seemingly disparate sources (blues, ragtime, swing, Dixieland, avant-garde, R&B) into a unique and distinctive mélange of post-modernist sounds. An eccentric stylist, he was also a consummate entertainer and shamanistic presence on stage, alternately given to clowning and playing two or three instruments simultaneously. Born in Columbus, Ohio on August 7, 1935, Kirk became blind at the age of two. Originally playing the bugle and trumpet, he later learned the clarinet and C-melody sax. Kirk began playing tenor sax professionally in R&B bands at the age of 15 and later discovered such unusual instruments as the manzello (a slightly curved variant of the B-Flat soprano sax) and stritch (a modified straight E-Flat alto). His debut as a leader was a 1956 R&B record called Triple Threat. By 1960, Kirk had begun to incorporate a siren whistle into his solos and by 1963 had mastered circular breathing, a technique that enabled him to play without pausing for breath.
Kirk worked in Louisville before moving to Chicago in 1960, the year he recorded his second album as a leader, Introducing Roland Kirk on the Chicago-based Argo label. In 1961, Kirk toured Germany and spent three months with Charles Mingus. The following year he appeared on Roy Haynes' Impulse album, Out of the Afternoon, and made his premiere at the Newport Jazz Festival.
A year after this 1969 Newport performance, Kirk added 'Rahsaan' to his name after hearing it in a dream. He continued to perform and record as Rahsaan Roland Kirk up until his death following a stroke on December 5, 1977.
-Written by Bill Milkowski
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