The political activism of this talented jazz musician is often overlooked, but it's a legacy worth remembering, writes Dave Randall
There are scandals – like the time he distributed cocaine to the front row of the audience during a televised performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1972. There are eccentricities – including a wish to be cremated and put in a bag of pot to be smoked by beautiful people. There is the fact that he overcame the challenges of blindness caused at birth by ill-prepared eye-drops, and later in life his return to playing after suffering a massive stroke. Then there is his appearance: towering fur hat, wraparound shades and long kaftan, with three saxophones, a flute, a clarinet, a whistle and a siren hanging from his neck – instruments he often played two or three at a time. And of course, his music… With so much to talk about, it’s not surprising that politics is sometimes relegated to the footnotes in accounts of the remarkable life and work of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Understandable, but misleading, because as well as the flamboyance, pathos, playfulness and musical mastery, Rahsaan was also consistently politically outspoken and engaged.
Born Ronald Theodore Kirk in Ohio in 1935, he studied at the Ohio State School for the Blind and was by his mid-teens touring the Midwest playing saxophones (often two at once) in soul-jazz organ groups and rhythm & blues bands. Inspiration to change his first name to ‘Roland’ and later to add ‘Rahsaan’ (his preferred title) came to him in dreams, which he described as his religion. He recorded his first album, Triple Threat, for King Records in 1956, and an impressed Ramsey Lewis got him a contract with Chess Records, which released Introducing Roland Kirk in 1960. But it wasn’t until the following year, when he joined Charles Mingus’ band and signed his own long-term contract with Mercury Records, that Rahsaan really started turning heads in the international jazz world.
Rahsaan toured extensively and had a knack for charming audiences between tunes with absurdist jokes, satire and laughter which somehow segued into discussions of race and politics. Having immersed himself in European classical music, he was among the first to argue that jazz should be called African American classical music. For Rahsaan, a lack of respect for jazz equated with a lack of respect for the achievements of black people and the erasure of black genius. His recordings are also peppered with political commentary – snippets of spoken word from Paul Robeson; news items on Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal; even a warning about the rise of the influence of computers, with Rahsaan threatening to pull the plug on any machine that tried to tell him what to do.
Perhaps his greatest political undertaking was the initiation of The Jazz and People’s Movement. This was a coalition of activists brought together in 1970 to challenge what they saw as the racist exclusion of jazz from television programming. They hatched a plan to infiltrate the audiences of TV talk shows armed with whistles. At a signal given by Rahsaan, the activists would stand up and simultaneously blast on the whistles so the show couldn’t go on. It was a simple idea that elegantly brought together the direct action of the civil rights movement, the sixties counterculture’s interest in jazz and Black Power critiques of the media.
The first disruption took place during the Dick Cavett show, shocking the networks. “Jazz militants take TV” national news reports fumed, but the militancy worked. Networks started to approach Rahsaan with offers in order to avoid further disruptions. One such offer came from the Ed Sullivan show, resulting in an appearance in 1971 by a nine-piece band led by Rahsaan and featuring Roy Haynes on drums, Archie Shepp on saxophone and Charles Mingus on bass. Ignoring requests from the show’s producer for a tamer choice of tune, Rahsaan kicked off the performance by declaring that “True Black music will be heard tonight” before ripping into a raucous version of Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song.
It’s unlikely that much of Ed Sullivan’s vast viewership had ever seen or heard anything like it before, but in the studio at least, the performance was met with rapturous applause. The Jericho walls of the media hadn’t completely fallen, but a gate previously closed to the jazz avant-garde had been blown off its hinges by Rahsaan and his many horns.
If you are new to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a good place to start is the excellent documentary about his life and work, The Case of the 3 Sided Dream, by Adam Kahan, which is now available to stream for free.
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Dave Randall is a musician and author of Sound System: The Political Power of Music.
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