Legends are tenuous at best. They begin, exist and sometimes thrive based on the number of people who believe them. More importantly, believe in them. It’s that belief that makes the underground music artist something more than he is – or what he should have been all along.
There are a lot of legends attributed to Roland Kirk (he added the Rahsaan in the early 1970s around the age of 35).
- He once rode a tandem bicycle with another musician from his hometown of Columbus, OH, to New York City. This is more compelling since he went blind at the age of 2.
- At the time of his death, in 1977, he had mastered 40 instruments and was learning to play the piano and harp.
- He participated in several television talk show takeovers, demanding more exposure for black jazz artists.
During one show, he handed whistles out to the crowd for the grand finale. Everyone played along with Kirk. When the cops came to shut down the racket – it had spilled out into the street – everyone who saw a uniform promptly stopped playing. Kirk, who was completely blind, continued to play. The cops never stopped him.
You probably wouldn’t know Kirk’s work if you heard it, but chances are you have. The theme song from the Austin Powers movie – Soul Bossa Nova by Quincy Jones – features Kirk on flute. He reprises that role on another Jones orchestration that gets a fair amount of play – the theme from Peter Gunn.
Throughout his life, he was constantly stretching the limit of what instruments could do. When he reached their limit, he would customize them. The two he is most famous for using are the manzello (a derivative of the soprano saxophone) and the stritch (a derivative of the straight alto saxophone).
This customization began at a very young age, after he lost his eyesight. Kirk picked up his first instrument and made it sound like the saxophones he heard on the radio. He would entertain the neighborhood kids with it – it was one of those same kids who would eventually loan him the money to buy an old sax from a pawn shop. But his first horn was, so the legend goes, a garden hose.
- Additional stories and legends from biographer John Kruth
- A recent documentary on Kirk
- Article on his passing from the Washington Post