Perfect Sound Forever

HIP CHOPS: Roland Kirk- Part 2

by Jon Kruth

 Todd Barkan believed that Rahsaan's routine of upstaging his fellow musicians was for the most part unintentional. But no one was immune when the Kirkatron was in high gear, not even Dexter Gordon, who Kirk greatly admired and respected. "The band was in Copenhagen when Rah went to check out Dexter at the Jazzhus Montmarte [where he recorded his first live album Kirk In Copenhagen]. And he was dying to sit in with Dex. No problem, Dex loved Rah," Barkan recalled fondly. "Rah got up on one tune and started to play but got carried away. They were playing Coltrane's 'Mr. PC'. Dexter played a laid back solo and Rah just kept on playing. After about five minutes, Dexter walked off the bandstand, went downstairs and got high. After a while Hilton got up and played the piano. Mattathias (Pearson) took over on bass and Sonny Brown played drums. Within twenty minutes it had become a Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the Vibration Society gig. It wasn't out of bein' a Bogart or egomaniac. He just got carried away doing his thing. He could be overly exuberant. He was just too intense!"

 "There were jam sessions in which he participated with the premeditated notion to blow everybody against the wall. Sometimes it was taken the wrong way and especially badly at the Newport Festival in 1972. Actually Roland hadn't given some of his colleagues, among them such famous musicians as Dexter Gordon and Zoot Sims, a chance to be heard," Joachim Berendt recalled.

 Phil Schaap was in the house that night at Radio City Music Hall. "He came on like gangbusters in a red jump suit trying to hog the stage," he remembered. "Actually he was trying to get Dexter and everybody to come back and take another solo," Schaap explained. "Rahsaan was looking for a challenging match, a mighty burner. Later on 'Sweets' Edison said everyone was mad as hell."

 "Rahsaan could be competitive. Don't mess with him at a jam session because he didn't play just one way. He could shift gears on you and take it another direction," Steve Turre warned. "He could destroy people at jam sessions if they tried to get competitive. You can feel when somebody's expressing themselves and not tryin' to cut you. If he felt that you was tryin' to get house on him and upstage him, oh boy, you was in trouble! He'd get on the flute and do the talkin' thing. You couldn't mess with that stuff!"

 "If you played a good solo, he would come back and play another on top of you. He didn't want you to get nowhere near touching him," Dick Griffin said. "I always felt good when I played well enough to make him play a second solo. I had no mercy for him when we were on the bandstand. I pushed him as far as I could and that's what he wanted. He didn't want me to feel pity for him because he was blind. That's why I would never help him with his instruments. We were good friends. He wanted to be independent but I knew when I had to step in and that's what he wanted, because he didn't have sight, but he always wanted to go right to the edge, right to the edge."

 "We were at the It Club in LA when [the great Memphis pianist] Phineas Newborn sat in with us," Michael Max Flemming recalled. "Roland wanted to be the fastest player in the world. We played everything fast! In the eighteen months I was with him he had five drummers! Phineas played with remarkable speed, he just double-timed everything but he was a very fragile, emotional person. When Rahsaan counted the tune off, it was like pullin' wings off a grasshopper. The poor man almost had a nervous breakdown."

In February 1973, Rahsaan organized a stellar all-star band called the "Black Classical Music Society" with Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones. Kirk put on a benefit concert, selling out the magnificent art deco Paramount Theater in Oakland, to raise a bundle of cash so his friend Todd Barkan could buy a liquor license for the Keystone.

 "That was some of the best playing I ever heard!" Todd said with a cat that ate the canary grin. "Rahsaan and McCoy played a duet of 'In A Sentimental Mood' that was just gorgeous. That's when I knew something was missing with his regular band. He was fully capable of playing with guys like Elvin and McCoy and making it sound like it was his band. For example, Freddie would play, and then Rah would follow him. Rah would play his solo note for note back to him with the right hand while playing some other shit with his left hand. This really fucked Freddie up. He had just played his baddest shit and Rahsaan played it back to him and then played another solo on top of it. Freddy just wasn't ready for that!"

 A year later in January 1974, Kirk did it again at the Mingus band reunion at Carnegie Hall when he bulldozed over George Adams and left nothing behind but the bones. Sy Johnson's liner notes from the Mingus live album sums up the scenario perfectly: "C Jam Blues begins with John Handy's tenor, an instrument not usually associated with him, but which Mingus had asked him to bring. He is followed by Hamiet Bluiett, frequently sounding like a tenor on his baritone saxophone, exploiting the extreme registers and sonorities of the instrument. George Adams follows Bluiett, moving outside very quickly, at which point, Mingus notes, Rahsaan Roland Kirk began 'listenin' his ass'. When Rahsaan follows, he begins simply, but before he has played one chorus, he suddenly lunges into a George Adams imitation. A delighted Mingus recalls, 'he was cuttin' him at his own shit.' The lesson over, Rahsaan plays a long solo, full of climaxes."

 Andy Statman, whose music blends traditional Jewish melodies of Eastern Europe with the energy of post-bop modal and free jazz, was in the crowd that night. He watched in awe as Kirk handed George Adams his head on a silver platter before a packed house. "At first he just imitated Adams, mocking him," Statman recalled. "Then he went into this incredible solo. He knew the breadth of the music and could use it like a weapon. Kirk had a tremendous ego and the talent to back it up. He was amazing but arrogant."

 "Forget it!" Steve Turre said with a husky laugh. "He wiped George Adams out at that Mingus gig at Carnegie Hall. He made George look like a little kid. When Rahsaan took his solo, he played the whole history of the music."

 "George Adams wasn't gonna out-do that man!" Stubblefield cackled. "There were only two musicians Rahsaan took a back seat to and that was John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Anybody else better take a number! Rahsaan was nuclear. He left nothin' behind! If you had to follow him you might as well as just got your money and gone home." From Stubblefield's description you can almost see a pair of charred scorch marks where Rahsaan stood on the stage at Carnegie Hall.

 "Oh, it was entertaining enough," Gary Giddins wrote, "lots of screaming and hollering and laughing and jumping and even a saxophone group-grope when Rahsaan Roland Kirk and George Adams started pawing each others horns. When it comes to rousing an audience through sheer strength of lungs, there is no competing with Rahsaan. His cheeks grew and deflated with mesmerizing regularity while this master of circular breathing pounded Carnegie with overtones and lines longer than most people's whole solos. Everybody loved it, almost."

 Mingus certainly had a ball. "Kirk a notorious scene-stealer, pulled out all the stops in his solos, to the audience's delight. Mingus grinned like a rotund Cheshire cat through the whole thing." Peter Keepnews wrote in Down Beat.

 "There is no doubt in my mind that Rahsaan Roland Kirk is one of the heirs to the mantle handed down by Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane as one of the primary exponents of saxophone playing in the world today," Jon Hendricks declared. "He will not be challenged!"

 Dick Griffin believes Rahsaan's competitiveness never lost its edge, even after suffering a debilitating stroke in 1975. "Rahsaan was sitting in with my friend Bill Saxon. We were at the end of this song and Bill was circular breathing and Rahsaan was circular breathing and they locked up. I told Bill he'd better step down 'cause Rahsaan would've gone till he croaked. He was so tenacious; he just wouldn't let go. Whenever he got on to something, he was gonna beat it. He was very competitive. Rahsaan had a winning way about him. If he had been an athlete, he would have been Michael Jordan. Nothing shorter than that!"

 "Musically Kirk was disciplined," Andy Statman assessed. "He really worked his butt off. Rahsaan was an amazing improviser. He was a colorful showman but it was often detrimental to the music," Andy said, referring to Kirk's outrageous stage shtick. Though Statman saw Rahsaan at the Village Vanguard on a number of occasions, he wasn't sold on Kirk's multi-horn routine. "You didn't see anything like it in Ellington's band," he pointed out. "Two guys playing the saxophone sound better than one guy playing two or three horns at once."

 "There was controversy about him," Dan Morgenstern said. "When people said it was a gimmick, his answer was that he could outplay anybody on one horn anytime."

 "People often missed his technical ability or his chops because they were so struck by a guy with cymbals on his knees, rather than the soulful, beautiful blues he was playin' on the clarinet," Dorn pointed out.

 "He was in a league all his own," Steve Turre declared. "Some people accused him of gimmickry but they're just not open to the power of his creation because they couldn't see themselves ever being able to do something like that. Therefore, it's not supposed to be possible. Like the way Michael Jordan jumps from the free-throw line. If he had done that twenty years ago people would've damn near denied it. That's not possible. You just can't do that!"

 Kirk would not be intimidated by mere mortal's limited minds. The word "can't" simply did not exist in his vocabulary. Rahsaan tirelessly jumped whatever hurdle life threw him on his endless quest to express himself. If you were bold or stupid enough to get in his way, you had another thing coming. Suddenly you'd find yourself looking up at Gargantua's big toe, about to become nothing more than a greasy smudge on the sidewalk.

 "He was a bad cat," Jon Hendricks said with a raspy laugh. "He could put a hurtin' on you boy! You gotta be John Coltrane to trade with Rahsaan! I had the wrong last name." Hendricks was referring to a track that appeared on "The Man Who Cried Fire", when he and Rahsaan faced off for a hilarious scatting session on "Mr. P.C." (a very popular number at jam sessions). Kirk began by buzzing and sputtering into his flute, then moved over to the nose flute growling like a crazed bumblebee. Breaking into a hot boppin' scat Rahsaan matched Hendricks riff for riff with his voice. Finally Kirk grabbed the mic and blew his opponent away by playing the mic itself. Vibrating his lips against it like a trumpet mouthpiece, Rahsaan shook the walls at the Keystone with a fat fuzzy electric duck call. "It's a wise man that knows how to quit when he's behind," Hendricks quipped.

 Because Kirk was capable of such prodigious feats himself, his expectations of his fellow musicians often exceeded reason. He constantly put whoever was around him to the test. Hal Willner recalled the time when Rah and Frank Foster had worked up a breezy arrangement of "There Will Never Be Another You" for The Return Of The 5000 Pound Man session: "Frank transcribed a Charlie Parker solo for Howard Johnson to play on the tuba!" Hal recalled with a chuckle. "Howard freaked when he saw it. He walked in the room, looked at the sheet music and tried to get out of that session anyway he could," Willner said, cracking up. "He even went as far as saying 'The air in the room was wrong!' Kirk used to throw that kind of shit on people all the time. When he cut 'Night In Tunisia' [on Kirkatron] he had the Stuff cats backin' him up [Richard Tee, Gordon Edwards and Cornell Dupree]. Rahsaan said, 'OK we're just gonna hit with 'Night In Tunisia' but they didn't know it! He freaked out at them,' Hal said. "Y'all call yourselves musicians and ya don't know 'Night In Tunisia'?" Kirk growled like an irate grizzly bear. "I'll learn ya!"

 "At the time he was reluctant to record with commercial electric rhythm sections. He was very hard on the Stuff cats. He told them he didn't want their stock licks. He warned them, 'This is my music. Don't play nothin' you played last week.' They were very nervous," Joel Dorn said rolling his eyes. "He made guys who were nervous even more nervous. Not only did he intimidate people but he often made enemies when it was pointless. I had to try and temper his madness whenever I could."

 "He was so mad about George Benson," Hal Willner recalled. "Warner Brothers had started a 'jazz' line around Rahsaan. He was their first artist. They used him to bring in all these other people like Benson, Pat Martino and Alice Coltrane. Benson had a hit and Rah had a stroke. There was a certain anger there, so he cut 'This Masquerade' (which appeared on Kirkatron) to say 'Fuck you!' That's why he did it. When he played it in concert he killed with it."

 "Rahsaan had a big problem with Stan Getz," Mark Davis said, sounding a bit perplexed. "Rahsaan was too great a musician not to appreciate Stan's tone and lyricism, but he felt that Getz received much more credit than he deserved."

 Kirk had no fear of making his feelings known and his pranks often took on a malicious tone. "Once we were backstage at Avery Fisher Hall where several great musicians were going to play tributes to particular artists," Davis recalled. "Rahsaan was doing Duke Ellington. Stan Getz was two rooms down the hall, warming up. Rahsaan sat there with his horn, listening. After every arpeggio Getz played, Rahsaan would blow it right back at him. Whenever Stan stopped for a breath, Rahsaan continued circular breathing. Then he'd crack up laughing. He knew Getz could hear him!"

 Kirk's antagonism was kindled by a number of reasons. He was angered that Getz had been chosen #1 in the Down Beat poll for best tenor saxophonist but most of all he was disgusted by the "star" treatment Stan received by festival staff.

 Bob Drinkwater was also appalled by the complete lack of consideration shown Rahsaan and Al Hibbler at the concert. Bob found it disturbing that Getz's dressing room was twice the size of the tiny space alloted to the two men. But worst of all, their room was located at the end of the hall, the farthest distance from the elevator.

 "I escorted them to the stage that night and Rahsaan went on first," Drinkwater recalled. "While backstage Al nudged me with his elbow and said, 'How am I going to follow that blind motherfucker? Now he's playing three horns at once!'

 Competitive as he was, Kirk could be extremely supportive of his fellow musicians. "He was really spontaneous and fun to play with," David Amram exclaimed. "Aside from his tremendous energy and artistry, he really did his homework. When he wasn't playing, he would listen so hard. You would play better just by him being there! That's a special gift, to be able to inspire others just by being there. That's what all of us musicians aspire to do. There was an expression we used to use back in the hippie days, before the advertising agencies got hold of it," Amram said with a laugh. "'Sending out the good vibes.' It meant that you could be sitting in the corner while everybody was playing and you could send out the good vibes, which made all the musicians feel more confident and inspired. Rahsaan often did that!"

 In 1969, Bob Drinkwater drove down from Boston to see Kirk at the Village Vanguard after being blown away the previous night by his show at Lennie's on the Turnpike. When trumpeter Lee Morgan walked in, the band broke into his signature tune "The Sidewinder" which featured Rahsaan on tenor and manzello. Charles McGhee felt so inspired he suddenly picked up his flugelhorn and trumpet and played them both at the same time. "This really broke Lee up," Bob said with a chuckle. "Talk about Bright Moments!"

 "He was the first to open my eyes that performing was a spiritual thing," Grover Washington explained. "Every night he'd open himself up to the audience. It was like communion or a religious service. His message was simple. You've got to respect the music and keep telling folks where it comes from. Rahsaan always had a way of making me remember I didn't get here by myself."

Bill McLarney recalled watching a sixteen-year old Ricky Ford take a lesson from Rahsaan at a party in Boston. After they found a quiet corner prodigious Ford stood behind Kirk, watching Kirk's fingers dancing on the brass pads while he played a passage. Sharing the same horn, Ricky reached from behind the master and repeated the same pattern while Rahsaan blew the tenor. "It was a lovely thing to see," Bill said.

Like Kirk, Grover is also a teacher. "Sharing what you know is as important as performance. We're only here for a minute," he said. "He took notice of me because I tried my utmost to prepare myself. He'd always include me if I was at the performance. He'd tell me to get on up here!" Grover said. "It's a goddamn shame people know my music and know me but they've never heard of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I talk about him everywhere I go, payin' my respects to the man."

 At the end of our conversation I thanked Grover for sharing his memories of Rahsaan. He had obviously been touched very deeply by him and said some beautiful things about the man. "That's how he talked about everybody," Washington replied.

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