HIP CHOPS: Roland Kirk
by Jon Kruth (June 2000)
NOTE: This is an excerpt from the biography Bright Moments : The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, published by Welcome Rain (2000).
"Who has the hippest chops in the world?"
-Roland Kirk, "Hip Chops"
Throughout the sixties and early seventies Roland was a ubiquitous presence on the New York jazz scene. He was great in jam sessions but if he was ever challenged, or if anyone tried to mess with him, he would rise to the occasion and forget it!" Dan Morgenstern said with a chuckle. "One thing about him that made him like the old-timers was his competitiveness. In that way he was a throwback to guys like Roy Eldridge and Hot Lips Page who would excel in that kind of situation. Roland always sounded terrific and vital with a certain directness that sightless people often have. He was a hard act to follow. That's why musicians might mutter about him being a circus act. Roland got to people. He would really break it up."
"Rahsaan could play any style - classical, straight ahead or swing. He played the finish off the saxophone. And the way he played flute! He gave me the impetus to blend styles. Even if you couldn't stand him, you had to respect Rahsaan," Grover Washington insisted. "He came ready. He lived it every day - walkin' and talkin' it. Rahsaan was passionate and full of life. He swung hard. When you got up on the bandstand with him, it wasn't about a cutting session. He would always share his knowledge and love of the music with you. He'd be hollering the changes while he was playing, to make you more comfortable."
Not everyone who had the opportunity to jam with Kirk felt the same way. Dave Liebman, whose distinctive tenor and soprano sax was a key component in funk and fusion ensembles led by Miles Davis and Chick Corea, found Kirk anything but "comfortable" to play with. In his speedy staccato Brooklyn-ese Dave recalled a run-in with Rahsaan that was more a harsh lesson than a bright moment.
"Bob Moses is a very old friend of mine and was playing (drums) with Rahsaan," Liebman explained. "Moses helped me get into the scene when I was 16 or 17 years old. He invited me down to the Showboat, a famous jazz club in Philadelphia where they were playing. This was in '64 or '65. I was a kid. I was just 18. Anyway, I ended up on the bandstand and Rahsaan turns around and calls ''All The Things You Are' First note is F#. 1-2-1-2-3-4!' Boom! Then he points at me. Forget it! I fumbled something and crawled into a hole. I probably couldn't do it now! The next tune was 'December Song.' It was something I sort of knew. I played the melody and that was it. He was doing the gunfighter at the OK Corral/cutting session stuff they did in those days. Now it's more like, (in a laid back voice) 'Hey, What do you know?' But with Rahsaan it was sink or swim. In a way he was making a point. If you don't know what you're doing, don't get up here. So it was a lesson. In general his vibe could be pretty nasty. He would harangue audiences but I had a certain amount of respect for him. He was a fantastic musician capable of anything, but his taste wasn't up my alley."
"It could have been a simple case of retribution for all the years of neglect and negligence Rahsaan suffered," Joel Dorn offered in response to Liebman's tale of humiliation "If there was a white guy that everybody was talking about, Rahsaan would take care of him. What's so hard to understand about that? Was it a waste of time and energy? Yeah, but it's a natural result of every action calling for an equal and opposite reaction."
"It was the time of black power and black pride," recalled Mark Davis. "When Rahsaan would hold that saxophone up after a solo, he was really saying, 'Here I am! The Miracle of the Saxophone!' He would frequently challenge anybody to come up on the stage and play with him. Rahsaan really had it in for Herbie Mann and it was justified in a way. His point was that only a white guy could make a living playing the flute. Until Hubert Laws came along black musicians had to play all the reeds and maybe once in a while they'd get a flute solo. If Rahsaan was playing a festival with Herbie, he would dare him to come on stage and play the flute with him. Of course he never did."
Many of Rahsaan's friends and fans believed he was denied the recognition he deserved on the instrument. One night at Lennie's on the Turnpike after Kirk played a stunning flute solo on "My Cheri Amour," Lennie Sogoloff, the jovial proprietor quipped, "If Herbie Mann tried that he'd sprain his tongue."
Les Scher first heard Roland Kirk live at the Village Gate on a double bill with Herbie Mann. At the time, Mann had a hit with "Comin' Home Baby" and was drawing big crowds. "His real name is Herbert Solomon," Les pointed out. "Rahsaan used to say Herbie changed his name because that's the only way he could prove he was a man! Rahsaan was a much better flute player. He was a heavy- duty cat. He completely blew Herbie Mann off the stage."
After the show Les claimed he was "shaking and shaking." Just a lad of eighteen, Scher was "too afraid to approach him" so he watched sheepishly from the doorway as Rahsaan put his instruments away."
"Rahsaan, like Mohammad Ali had an accurate perception of himself as being on top. He worked very hard to get there. When he really arrived and knew what his position was, he always gave credit to his predecessors and to other musicians of the time who were putting a real, sincere effort into what they were doing. He always dug Yusef, Pharoah and Trane," Mark Davis said.
Pianist Larry Willis remembered experiencing Kirk for the first time at Count Basie's on 132nd Street and 7th Ave. in Harlem: "He came on the bandstand and scared everybody to death," Willis recalled with a laugh. "I saw other horn players putting their instruments back in their cases!"
Although Rahsaan was branded "way-out" by the mainstream, the avant-garde remained hesitant to embrace him as one of their own. Bassist Burnie Loring claimed that even in his scuffling days in the Midwest Kirk was capable of "playing the most modern and exotic stuff you ever heard - as avant-garde as anything these days in Manhattan."
"Kirk doesn't fit into the avant-garde," Chris Welch proclaimed in Melody Maker. "Yet he is truly one of the only free players in jazz today." The term "free" became a yardstick by which musicians like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton measured the spirit and intensity of their creative output.
"The real Free/Avant-Garde cats loved him," Steve Turre claimed. "Pharoah, Archie, the Art Ensemble, all loved him. When we worked in Chicago everybody came down to see him. They recognized what he was doing but the press didn't because he played all the music. Rahsaan didn't express only one sentiment of feeling."
While shopping at Tower Records in the Village one August afternoon I bumped into the brilliant composer/multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. With his arms overflowing with books and discs he still managed to poke through the Ornette Coleman section with a spare finger.
"Mr. Kirk was very inspirational and always helpful to the young guys," Braxton said, bubbling with enthusiasim. "I used to go see him in Chicago and he'd let me sit in on the last set of the night. My first performance in New York was actually with him at the Village Vanguard! We played 'Take The A Train'," he recalled fondly.
"We used to talk a lot about the avant-garde, which he was quite capable of carrying out, but it wasn't part of his musical ethic," Michael Cuscuna explained.
"That's what freedom's all about
learnin' somethin' then throwin' it away."
- Roland Kirk
"A lot of the so-called 'free' musicians weren't hip to Rahsaan because he could go further out than any of them and at the same time he insisted you do your homework. For most of those cats it wasn't by choice it was by chance," Steve Turre emphasized. "If you couldn't play the changes he'd get on your case. He'd say, 'How come you wigglin' your fingers when you haven't played the tune yet?'
"Rahsaan would always extend the opportunity to younger musicians to sit in. Once in Detroit this guy sat in with a bass clarinet. It was obvious this person liked Coltrane, but only the outside stuff. We played 'Impressions' (the original recording featured Eric Dolphy, the master of the bass clarinet) and immediately this young person started honkin' and squeakin'. Rahsaan was cool. Afterwards he said, 'OK, We played what you wanna play. I know you like Coltrane, so let's do 'Giant Steps' 1-2-3-4! and this guy completely folded. Then Rahsaan gave him a tongue-lashing. He said, 'How can you be into John Coltrane's music and you ain't learned 'Giant Steps'? You better go home and learn it! I don't mind you goin' outside but it's gotta mean somethin'. Don't go outside just 'cause you can't go nowhere else!"
In the liner notes to The Man Who Cried Fire, a posthumous compilation of live recordings culled from the Keystone Korner, Rahsaan spoke about his relationship with John Coltrane: "One thing that has never been written about is the closeness of John Coltrane and myself. We were very close. This was dismissed for what reason I don't know. We used to get together and talk about reeds and music. One night we were down in the Village listening to Freddie Hubbard and Max Roach and John talked about how he felt up against the wall in his music because a lot of musicians had told him what he was doing wasn't hip enough."
"Roland was always willing to listen to someone he respected when they changed direction. He'd always give them the benefit of the doubt. He called me when Coltrane's "Ascension" came out," Cuscuna recalled. "He'd been listening to it all day and wasn't sure about it. He was struggling with it because it was Coltrane and he loved and respected him. Some of the other musicians just said it was bullshit! He would never dismiss anything like that. Whereas they wouldn't put the effort into understanding what someone else was trying to do."
Drummer Max Roach believed the music of the '40's was the prime source of inspiration for Kirk and his peers: "John Coltrane is an extension of the whole '40's thing and all of a sudden everybody's that. McCoy Tyner, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, they are all extensions of the '40's and the reason why they are who they are today is because of the time they spent analyzing and feeding off the '40's."
Kirk loved and respected Coltrane dearly. He openly praised the man as a true giant of his time. Inspired not only by Coltrane's colossal tone and hip chops but by his spiritual philosophy, Rahsaan paid tribute to Trane throughout his career as part of his mission to promote and preserve black classical music.
Shocked by the news of Trane's sudden death in July 1967, author Bill Cole, in need of solace, went to hear Roland Kirk play the Both/And Club in San Francisco. Kirk dedicated a soulful medley for his fallen friend that spurred Cole to declare it "was by far the best thing I ever heard him play."
This new improvised piece soon became the centerpiece to Roland's set. "A Tribute To John Coltrane" was recorded a year after its conception at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1968. As Kirk explained in his introduction, the music was "a memorial and a short medley of tunes that John Coltrane left here for us to learn." Beginning on tenor with an introspective rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" Kirk switches over to manzello, mimicking Coltrane's spiraling soprano on Mongo Santamaria's classic "Afro-Blue." Finally Roland blasts off with a furious tenor solo on Coltrane's own "Bessie's" Blues." Giving it every ounce he's got, Kirk was supported by one of his sturdiest rhythm sections: Ron Burton on piano, Vernon Martin's punchy bass and Jimmy Hopps on drums. On his frequent tours of Europe Kirk often showcased his maniacal manzello with a soaring rendition of Coltrane's modal masterpiece "My Favorite Things."
Back in 1964, while at Oberlin College, Todd Barkan stopped by the Sheraton Motor Inn on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland to see Roland Kirk play with the 3 Blind Mice. "They were outstanding," Barkan exclaimed. "But across the street at Leo's Casino was the John Coltrane Sextet with Eric Dolphy and Wes Montgomery!" Underage at the time, Todd had to don a humiliating pink plastic Hawaiian lei and sip soft drinks at the bar, but that hardly phased him - he showed up for all six nights.
"One night Rahsaan sat in on the second set. They played 'Impressions' for about two and a half-hours. Those long solos just drove Elvin and McCoy nuts. At one point Elvin got up and left, went somewhere to get high and then came back a half an hour later. You couldn't hear the piano that well, or the bass. Those guys played hard and got frustrated. They had blood on their hands. By the time Rahsaan sat in there was nobody left in the place because by that point in his career, Coltrane was just too heavy for most people. These guys would bring their dates thinking they'd hear 'Chim Chim Cherie' or 'My Favorite Things.' Trane would come out and play three notes at once on his horn and by the time the second tune began the house was half-empty," Todd said with a chuckle. "It was just too 'out' there. It was some of the greatest music ever made and there were only twelve people there to hear it!"
Kirk knew all too well that the music's brightest moments were sadly often witnessed by just a handful. Years before, he himself heard Charlie Parker playing to a near empty house in Saint Louis.
On one unusually slow night at the Village Vanguard in the early seventies Rahsaan told the small but devoted crowd; "We really appreciate your kind attention. Sometimes crowds are very unruly, especially when we just have chairs and tables. Chairs and tables and rats and roaches. They can be really unruly," he joked. "They don't respond at all!" But even when faced with "chairs and tables and rats and roaches" Rahsaan always played like there was no tomorrow.
"I feel guilty when I play and don't give it my all like Rahsaan did," Michael Max Flemming confessed. "I know it's possible, I was there. I saw it. It was like a hydrogen bomb going off, over and over again, night after night. He wasn't happy unless he made the people scream after every song. Maybe it was because he couldn't see the look on their faces. He had to hear them yell."
"To him there was an inner integrity to the music," Mark Davis imparted. "Some guys were faking it. To them it was no big deal. So what - they're faking it and making a little money. But to Rahsaan, they were swiping at the core. He hated phonies. He used to say if Diana Ross was walking on the other side of the street, he'd cross over, just to hit her with his stick. How dare she represent Billie Holiday in 'Lady Sings The Blues." She had no voice!"
"I had to go to the movies and pay
the price to see Diana Ross
mess up Lady Day
Damn! That was a helluva price to pay
That broad's so skinny
You can put her in a violin case!
Damn, what a terrible waste!
She was doin' alright
when she was singin' with The Supremes
Why'd she have to go and mess up
my Lady Day Dreams?"
- Rahsaan Roland Kirk, "Clickety Clack"
Rahsaan had zero tolerance for poseurs and wannabes. He expected musicians to do their homework before getting on stage with him. When sitting in at a jam session if you didn't know what you were doing, it would be wise to listen and learn, especially when the likes of Rahsaan Roland Kirk held court.
"I'd been playin' some flute and trumpet and he said, 'You should come sit in with me,'" Bruce Massey remembered. "I constantly saw people sit in with him but I never had the balls to do it 'cause you never knew what he's gonna call out. If he called out an Ellington number and you don't know it, you're toast! I saw a guy come in with a flute that didn't know a Sidney Bechet number. He said, 'What? You don't know that? Well, what do you know?' The guy said, 'A Train.' Rahsaan said, 'What key do you need it in?' He just killed this kid. Afterward the kid was just shakin'."
Cellist, composer and arranger Akua Dixon of Quartette Indigo (and wife of Steve Turre) recalled a humorous/pathetic scene that went down one night at the Vanguard; "This chick had begged him to let her sit in. Rahsaan had a siren and when somebody played too long, he'd go ahead and blow the whistle on them. She was up on the bandstand and he blew the whistle but she just kept honkin' and squeakin'. Now there's good 'outside' and there's 'honkin' and squeakin'. As far as Rahsaan was concerned she was 'honkin' and squeakin'. He blew the whistle on her again and she didn't get off the stage. She was really movin' all over the place. She came next to him and he reached over and grabbed the mouthpiece right off her sax! She started cryin' 'Oh Rahsaan! Please! Why'd you do that to me?' He was amazing! He could hear things so well. He could tell right where she was. It wasn't like he was fumbling. He just reached over for that mouthpiece and grabbed it!"
"I remember goin' home mad after Sonny Stitt spanked my butt. Ain't no talkin' about it after the man spank you. Just say 'Later, I'll be back!' Rahsaan told his audience at the Jazz Workshop in Boston in 1972.
"After he got to know me he would allow me to come sit in. I asked him to play a blues so I could get through it and he called the fastest blues in the key of D flat you ever heard!" Byard Lancaster said with laugh.
"He would never put a guy down if he was tryin'," Burnie Loring explained. "Rahsaan was never harsh to a weak player. He made you play better! He was supportive of honest people. But if he thought you were pretentious, he'd take you apart."
Bill McLarney recalled a night at the Jazz Workshop when a friend of Kirk's begged him to invite his poet/girlfriend up to the stage to read, while the band improvised behind her. "She got up and did a really dumb poem about her cat. It was really out of place, but the band tried to do something behind it. Some guy in the audience starting insulting her with half-sexist, half-racist hippie-dip comments. Rahsaan suddenly stopped the band and said, 'You can think whatever you want to about this lady's poem. But she's doin' somethin'! What can you do brother? You got an instrument? Bring it up here and play it! Can you sing? Come on up here and sing. Can you tell a joke? Come on up and tell one. Can you fight? Then come on up here and box with me!' He completely shut the guy down in an instant," Bill said with a laugh. 'She's got more courage than you got brother!' he said."
From Kirk's point of view, it made no difference what you did, whether you were a plumber or a caligrapher, it was your commitment to your work, your art and life that mattered most. Rahsaan's manic drive and obsessive nature was simply too much for most people. His habit of dominating the scene often drew accusations of grandstanding from his fellow musicians. But unless provoked, Rahsaan was not in the routine of deliberately shredding his peers. He never purposely went looking for someone to burn. In reality Rahsaan had developed a greater musical vocabulary and ability to express himself than most musicians could imagine. At times he was certainly was guilty of being "over-enthusiastic."
One night at the Vanguard, Frank Foster watched knowingly as Kirk pulled the rug out from under alto saxophonist Sonny Red Kyner. "He was playing a gig with his group when Rahsaan walked in." Foster said, unable to recall whether Sonny invited Kirk to sit in or if Rahsaan muscled his way onto the bandstand. Either way, it wasn't long before Kirk had the audience in the palm of his hand. "Naturally the crowd went wild," Frank said. "Sonny Red bore it for a while but then became angry because the crowd was goin' bonkers over Rahsaan. He packed up his horn and left his own engagement. Sonny Red just walked out and Rahsaan finished his gig!"
Cecilia Foster was also in the crowd that night with her husband: "It was the last set of the evening when Rahsaan came up and joined him," Cecilia recalled. "The people went wild. They were so exited over him that Sonny Red packed up his bags and went home! It was his gig! I said, 'Rahsaan, the man left - You ran him out of his gig!' He said, 'I didn't run him out! He invited me up to play but since he's gone, we might as well finish his gig, right?' I said, 'I don't believe you!' He said, 'the people paid to come in, they gotta hear some music!'"
John Stubblefield remembered a bad scene opening for Rahsaan when he used to blow sax with the Basic Black Band: "He wouldn't let us back on stage!" Stubblefield grumbled. "He played for two and a half-hours and the people were mesmerized. We were mad 'cause we couldn't get back on to play. I don't know why I even bothered to wait around for him to get off the bandstand. When he came in the dressing room we were sitting there waiting, it was like he could see everybody or feel them. How he knew I was in that dressing room, I don't know! He said, 'John, How do you feel?' I said, 'I don't feel that well.' He could hear the anger in my voice. I said, 'Rahsaan, with all due respect and sincerity, we were under contract to play another set.' He just started laughin'. I said that I didn't find it very funny. But he'd cut you up. I didn't know Rahsaan was that competitive. I really don't think it stemmed from insecurity. I talked with Mary Lou Williams the next day. I said, 'Rahsaan drove us nuts! We had our fans there. [Harmonica legend] Sugar Blue played with us that night. He was killin'!' Mary Lou said, 'That's been goin' on a long time. Rahsaan has driven lots of people against the wall.'"
See Part two of Hip Chops
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