Rahsaan Roland Kirk's Religion of Dreams

Even among saxophone blowers – some of the most adventurous players in jazz - Rahsaan Roland Kirk was a one-man sonic explorer. He was always moving ahead and always looking for something new to travel through both his ears and those of his listeners.

After all, this was a man who mastered dozens of reed instruments. They could be of standard variety, relics of the 1800s with bizarre names he would search out in antique and junk shops, or horns he himself modified for either sound or ease of playing.

Sound in all forms fascinated him, and, as one interviewee points out in the documentary The Case of the Three Sided Dream, he once even “played” a talking calculator.

That he did it all while completely blind – the result of a nurse's errantly putting silver nitrate drops in his eyes at birth, which burned his corneas – is all the more incredible.

“Anything that made sounds fascinated him,” says Dorthaan Kirk, his widow. The 77-year-old Houston native will be a special guest for a screening at the Museum of Fine Arts as part of its annual "Jazz on Film" series. 

The 2014 documentary, created and directed by Adam Kahan, received Dorthaan’s enthusiastic participation when she realized this would not be a standard cradle-to-grave biographical take, but would concentrate on Kirk’s musical journey and ideas. And that opened the door for a small group of other family members, bandmates and musicians to share their memories onscreen. It also features generous footage of Kirk in concert, interviews on television shows, and even home movies.

Born Ronald Kirk, he changed his name to “Roland” on a whim, later adding “Rahsaan” after hearing it in a dream. Dreams, in fact formed the “religion” that Kirk said he followed.

It was in another dream that he saw himself playing two horns at once, which he upped in real life by regularly playing three at the same time. The practice become his trademark. He also played woodwinds through his nose, which he saw as just another orifice through which to create music.

But throughout his career, he bristled when someone would say that stuffing three horns at once in his mouth (along with his frequent talking to the audience) was just a showman’s “gimmick” detracting from his standing as a “serious” jazz musician. In a clip from a 1964 BBC appearance, Kirk jokes that his reed section has “been together for 20 years…all in one mouth.”

“He struggled with that word because it [downplayed] his talent. The term ‘gimmick’ just made him crazy, especially if it was in a newspaper review of a performance. He would get so upset about it. And you couldn’t tell him anything, because he was a stubborn Leo!” Dorthaan remembers.

“I would go to great lengths to try and hide articles from him, but that was impossible. He would always find out! But he hoped [the term] would eventually just go away.”

“Jazz” itself was another term that Rashaan took issue with, preferring to call the genre “black classical music.”

At the age of 17, Dorthaan left Houston to pursue a nursing career in Los Angeles. She got married, and first met Rahsaan in 1962 through a friend of her husband’s, and whenever Rahsaan came to Los Angeles, he would visit.

“Back in the day, traveling musicians would always have two or three homes in a city where they would meet friends and have a home-cooked meal,” Dorthaan recalls.

After both her and Rahsaan’s first marriages dissolved, their relationship went to another level. He asked her to come on the road as a companion, and they married in 1971.

The documentary also details Kirk’s creation and leadership of the “Jazz and People’s Movement” in the early ’70s. Frustrated by the lack of exposure that jazz had on television, Kirk led a group who would disrupt talk shows and bombard network offices with requests to remedy that situation. Its culmination came when Kirk led an all-star group (including bassist Charles Mingus, drummer Roy Haynes and saxophonist Archie Shepp) for a free-form jam on, of all places, The Ed Sullivan Show.

Dorthaan Kirk still has many relatives in Houston, and always makes a point of returning at least each Thanksgiving for a family reunion. Were her husband still alive, she feels, there’s no doubt he’d be tagging along as well.
“He loved family and friends getting together. He loved birthdays and holidays and parties and going out to restaurants,” Dorthaan recalls. Incredibly, for a blind man (though Kirk always would say he “just couldn’t see too well”), she says he also loved shopping for clothes and attending Broadway shows and movies. Though one film in particular set him off.

“I will never forget this. We went to see Lady Sings the Blues, where Diana Ross played Billie Holiday, and he hated that they cast her in that role. He said she was too little, too skinny,” she recalls.

“And he hated the fact that it highlighted her drug addiction as opposed to her talent. We went back to the hotel and he laid across the bed. That night, on the bandstand, he preached a sermon about how awful he thought the movie was!”

At the age of 39, Kirk suffered a stroke that permanently paralyzed the right side of his body. Incredibly, he came back and continued to perform, modifying the buttons on his sax so that he could play with just his left pinkie what his entire right hand used to do. A second stroke proved fatal, and he died in 1977 at the age of just 42.

“Even though [John] Coltrane and [Charlie] Parker and others died pretty young, I think at the time [Rahsaan] just didn’t reach the level that they did at the time of his death, and he was of a later generation,” Dorthaan offers. “He hadn’t been recognized yet as a great saxophonist by the masses, and that’s what he always wanted to be seen as. And [I believe] that has happened now.”

The Case of the Three Sided Dream screens June 17, 7 p.m., at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Brown Theatre, 1001 Bissonnet. $7-$9. mfah.films or 713-639-7550.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero