I Know You Have Cried The Inflated Tear, Beautiful Rahsaan | Killer Strayhorn



Ironically, the greatest jazz performer of all time is not a household word. I’ve never heard him played on KKFI and you probably don’t own even one of his records or CD’s. He always had a little coin in his pocket but never really received his due and cashed in—-despite paying serious dues. Fortunes were made on ideas borrowed from this fella with very little credit given. He was the consumate, passionate, jazz artist, yet never saw a sunset, much less a beautiful woman.
Ronald Theodore Kirk was born poor, black and mostly sightless in Columbus, Ohio in 1936 and packed 100 years into his meager 41 trips around the sun—speaking of which, Ronnie–later called Roland quipped that he could “hear the sun” and that [somedays] “the wind was in Bb.”  He was as cosmic as cosmic could be yet so down to earth and “everyday” that when on the road he would have friends record afternoon soap operas for him to keep up with. Its actually harder to write about him than it is to describe a rainbow, yet many people before me have waxed quite eloquent.

Listen to these:

“(Rahsaan)….must be seen to be believed. With three horns in his mouth and flutes and whistles protruding from every pocket, he is a sight to behold. He seems to generate music like a dynamo creating electric energy.”

Dr. Billy Taylor

“Kirk was an incredible,fresh, and honest performer. Things that might have been thought of as “circus act stuff” when on record, were amazing live. I have never seen so much music in someone before or since. Both times (I saw him)…were truely spiritual experiences.”

Roger Atkinson (JAM editor)

“He was the consummate musician. Such imagination. Such a creative individual. Distinctive. He was awesome, at the top of my list.”

Quincy Jones

“This man is what jazz is all about. He’s real.”

Charles Mingus

“I like things from Bach to Roland Kirk. He hasn’t even started yet….Roland Kirk. That cat….really when you hear it. You can hear so much for the future. I mean not necessarily notes, but you can hear it by feelings.”

Jimi Hendrix
[Hendrix and Kirk jammed together in London]

“Both Jimi Hendrix and Rahsaan Roland Kirk invented themselves. They both burned a mad path across a sad, square world at breakneck speed and one bright moment later, they were gone. Accused of flash and gimmickry, this pair of “uppity niggers” detonated a sonic bomb that helped demolish the tired old cliches of both jazz and rock.”

(Biographer) John Kruth
     Roland Kirks first instrument was a piece of garden hose which he played like a trumpet and throughout his lifetime he would perform on over 40 instruments many of his own design, some of which include:Flute, Bb and Eb clarinets, harmonica, nose flute, baby Eb sax, oboe, melodica, black puzzle flute??, Lyricon, didgerido, electric kalimba (African thumb piano), english horn.
     His main axes were the tenor sax, stritch, and manzello (“moon Zeller”) which early on, he learned to play all at the same time both in unison and harmony. Its quite a sight to this day, if you get the chance via netflix or youtube, to see his multi horn approach. Probably his most famous composition making use of the 3 sax ensemble was “The Inflated Tear” . This is a one-of-a kind piece, with a haunting intro and outro, that I first heard on college jazz radio in the late 70′s. It got me out of bed two different times and I’ve never forgotten it. The piece totally grabs you if you are like most people and  seems to say, ” I am music on the next emotional level…so deal with me if you can.”
     Three odd incidents from the past regarding Kirk have stayed with me and caused me to ponder them. The first features my first classical saxophone teacher (before I focused on piano). His name was Fumiyoshi Maezawa and he was a little chain-smoking classical genius with almost no interest in jazz. I’m sure he was positively sick of all of those white college students wanting sax lessons to improve their jazz playing. He was classical all the way as was his saxophonist wife, yet one day the subject of Rahsaan came up and of course he had seen him recently at a California Jazz fest playing sax with one hand—due to suffering a stroke that paralyzed one side of his body. Its hard to picture Yoshi, as he was called, at a jazz fest, but the legend of Kirk, with all of his escapades and antics, had seeped over into the ”legit” music world. Yoshi just had to see it for himself.
     My first jazz sax teacher was Tony Calabro,quite a talented chap on both sax and trumpet as well as being a fine instrument repairman. He kind of went town to town usually staying a few years, until something better appeared. This cat was suave and sophisticated. He loved the high life and always had a new woman and a nice sportscar. In his own way, he was generous and let me hang with him–even putting me on a record date after just a couple of months of lessons. This is a guy who had seen it all and done it all. One day I showed up and could tell he was really moved by the LP in his hands. It was “Bright Moments” by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a live double album from the Keystone Korner. He seemed to realize that Kirk was taking things to the next level beyond a typical jazz performer (like himself). He was smitten and commented that this was an epiphany for him hearing a jazz artist holding the audience in the palm of his hand–with a style that transcended styles. This, he said was where he wanted to go..
     ”Bright Moments” captured Kirk at his peak, in the setting where his all-encompassing presence shone through–that is–in the live concert/club. He would feed off of the audience and would tease and taunt them, sometimes breaking chairs, and burning and/or EATING money. {yes its true…..making the point that money by itself won’t make you happy}  He would rap about current events and in a word, just blow the freaking paint off the walls. His circular breathing and three sax ensembles was just too much for most folks, and he knew it. I have another live CD of his, released after his death called “Brotherman in the Fatherland”. Its Rah and the guys live from Germany. Its just an average night for the band IMHO,until the last cut where Kirk takes a 12 minute solo on “Blue Trane”…..with one continuous breath. Most of it being 16th notes. It just kind of leaves you…..gasping for a breath!
     This brings up a point that must be made about his studio albums. They weren’t always that good, or at least as good as they could have been. A typical late-Kirk studio album like say, “Kirkatron” (whose cover I was really intrigued by as a youth) is so different from live at the Keystone Korner, its like lightening and lightening bug,and they are only a few years apart. The stroke had something to do with it, but even earlier studio album concepts sound amateaurish and definately dated, even though at the time could have been thought of as “forward thinking”. With all of the voices and strings, etc. you kind of lose Rahsaan. His sax tone just wasn’t always captured very good and being sightless he was prone to moving in and out of mic range.
     His producer Joel Dorn, was a bit of a strange chap that Kirk trusted with the main body of his work for some reason. Its hard to say if Dorn knew much about recording a jazz record. Some observers have described him as a “Barnum and Bailey” type promoter, who just wanted to be doing hip and counter culture antics. But, of course, who could have produced Kirk much better? He fit no catagories so noone would even know who his market audience would even be. Plus, his strong, overbearing, at times, personality wasn’t going to be coaxed into doing anything he wasn’t feeling at the moment. Rahsaan, no doubt, blew alot of gaskets at the treatment he received from the music establishment, record companies, and yes, even the FBI, who tried a couple of times to indict him on various [I believe] trumped-up Federal charges. He, like Mingus, was outspoken and politically active on a number of issues, mainly the absense of “Black classical music” artists  on television which led to on-site protests with other musicians at TV studio tapings. This was perceived as almost “instigating a riot” and I’m sure the establishment viewed him as a black panther archetype. [not that the original Panthers were actually doing anything but benevolent,neighborhood activities.......a long misunderstood story in itself]
     Rah did make it on the Ed Sullivan show and Hugh Downs interviewed him on the Today show, but amidst alot of criticism from the music establishment who accused him of only doing it out of self interest, he kind of threw in the towel on the TV protests and went back to working and traveling. Of course the whole story could be made into a book but it shows yet another side of RRK. He was loved, hated, feared, and worshiped all at the same time.
     The third story is just a small aside that threw me for a loop just for its oddness. I’m sitting there a few years back, browsing through a real estate book by a California attorney and in the acknowledgments section he thanks a multitude of people including “Rahsaan Roland Kirk, for his inspirational black classical music.” How funny. It just shows how far-reaching and how deeply felt Rahs music could be.
     So why is he the “greatest jazz performer” of all time? Better than Trane or Tatum?? Its because he was an all encompassing musical and political presence. No, his sax playing is anything but flawless at times, but at other times it seems to come from a other planet–a bit like Eric Dolphys.  Trane had a mountain of technique, but didn’t care if the room cleared out after one song. [as it sometimes did]  Kirk, in contrast was not above stoppin’ you at the door and asking what your problem was. He was the complete entertainer/prophet/communicator/shaman. Whole concerts were created off-the-cuff. Sidemen and audiences just had to roll with the coaster. He spanned and played the whole swath of improvised music from Bechet to Zappa, all effortlessly and all completely genuine. He’s the guy you put in a spaceship and send to another planet with a note that says, “This is jazz…. dig it”. I love his quote after a fan in the audience screamed, “Play the blues !” He said, ”I AM THE BLUES”.  I dare anyone to argue that point.
     His second wife Dorthaan is still living and she reminisced one day “I knew a guy who wanted to go to the theatre to see Sherlock Holmes. He loved Sherlock Holmes !—The guy who wanted to go to the record store three times a week…..Thats the person I knew… I didn’t know the man on the bandstand.”
  • The title comes from two Kirk song titles:  ” The Inflated Tear” and “Now Please Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith” [Kirks song titles are worth the price of admission]
  • The John Kruth biography is: “Bright Moments: The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk”
    c 2000  Welcome Rain Publishers {a thousand Kirk anecdotes rolled into one book.}
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