Rahsaan Roland Ronnie Kirk was born August 7, 1936 in an area of Columbus called Flytown and grew to be a world renowned musician, specializing in reed instruments. Sightless from birth, he played tenor saxophone, flute, stritch, manzello, nose flute and he thought about music constantly, banging, plucking and blowing on anything that would make a sound from age five.
He is the subject of a book entitled Bright Moments, by John Kruth and I have read the book twice, enjoying a new picture of the book upon each reading. Ronnie was his first name, but in a dream he envisioned himself being called Rahsaan. His playmates were musicians; Hank Marr, Gene Walker and Bruce Woode. Here is an excerpt from the book;
“One of the first people to open me to music when I was about three or four years old was a gentleman in my family named Elijah Broderick. He played a beautiful piano, very original to me at the time. It still sounds original in my ear today. I associate it with the stride way of piano playing. His left hand was very dominant. He didn’t listen to Fats Waller or anyone. It was what you would call a natural gig. He played his stuff on the black keys. Now, that’s not to say he was hung up on “blacknuss.” It was just something that happened.
One Saturday morning when I was about five or six years old, we came back from this rummage sale and my mother gave me this paper bag. I could feel this object in it. I took it out and it was an old, beat up bugle. She said she paid fifty cent for it.
The next Sunday, after I got the bugle, my uncle came down and started playing the piano and I went and got the bugle. I don’t remember what we were playing but whatever it was, it really left an impression on me.”
Rahsaan became a multi-instrumentalist, acquiring the ability to play the tenor saxophone, stritch and manzello but to play them at the same time. He began playing two horns at aged seventeen in the Boyd Moore Band and advanced his playing with Bruce Woode and the Chips. Although he was thought as a novelty, he was to develop his technique, “ I hope when the era comes that people are playing two and three horns, they point back to me,” says Rahsaan.
I have a film of the 1972 Montreux Jazz Festival, when Rahsaan is at his peak with his reed playing. Or should I say reed playing and cacophony. In an hour Rahsaan raised to his lips and blew tenor sax, stritch, a siren-like whistle, clarinet, flute, nose flute, pitch pipe, manzello and a shell. Close by he employed a foot cymbal and a gong. Chaos ruled the stage.
I saw Rahsaan on three ocassions and I regret not seeing him a fourth, when he appeared in Columbus for two weeks at a nightclub, the Apple Tree. I first saw a speaking engagement at the Ohio State University Student Union, a performance at the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival and after he had a stroke, I saw him at Gilly’s Nightclub in Dayton.
Rahsaan was likely the greatest musician who played three instruments. And he lived a lifetime in forty-one years, dying on December 4, 1977.