Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Rahsaan Roland Kirk

My first encounter with the music of Rahsaan Roland Kirk [1935-1977] music was through my uncle. I would read Down Beat magazine in the high school library and I became fascinated with the pictures they'd print on him. Who was this guy? What was he doing? And most importantly, what did it sound like?
Since my uncle was a jazz fan, I asked him if he had any of Kirk's albums. He lent me "Introducing Roland Kirk" and "We Free Kings." I put on the latter and I must have played the first track (Three For The Festival) at least a dozen times before I let the record continue. I never heard anything like that! And needless to say, I was hooked.
Since I was pretty young (13 in 1973) at the time, opportunities to go see him in concert were limited by my age, distance and family economics.
June of 1977: The jazz radio station announced that Rahsaan was playing at Concerts By The Sea in Redondo Beach. This was a club that didn't serve food, so the minimum age was 21. At the time, I was two months from my 18th birthday. A friend of my dad told me that the club was unofficially cool about minors as long as you didn't try to order booze. I decided to give it a try.
Saturday night, June 25, 1977: I made the 90 mile drive from Lancaster to Redondo Beach. To my relief, they let me in without so much as a second glance.
Because it was my idol, I resolved to record the concert. I hid the tape recorder in the Polaroid camera bag I brought with me. The pictures came out terribly (see above). Also, at the time, I didn't think you needed to spent a whole dollar on a cassette tape when you could get a pack of three for that amount! Given that, I'm surprised the sound is as good as it is.
I sat in the second row of the small theater style club. The waitress approached and I ordered the first of several Cokes. When the lights went down, the band entered- but without Rahsaan. They played a couple of songs, but I didn't record them. I only had two 90 minute tapes & didn't want to "waste" them.
Finally, Rahsaan was announced. The band {Hilton Ruiz, Steve Turre, Phillip Bowler & John Goldsmith} struck into "Bright Moments." After a pause, the side door opened and a very gaunt man was led to the stage by the vocalist, Michael Hill. It was shocking and disturbing. This didn't look like the robust figure from the magazines and album covers.
While still standing, he took up his tenor and started "Softly, as a morning sunrise." While the band continued the vamp, he sat and played the rest of the night that way.
Kirk had suffered a stroke about a year and a half previous to this that left his right side paralyzed. He modified his instruments to allow one handed playing. He even had a flute made with a 90 degree angle so that it could be played more easily (see picture above).
Initially, I didn't record his between song talks either. I wish I would have recorded them all. At one point during the first set, someone became impatient and yelled out "Play your horn!" Without missing a beat, Rahsaan replied "I been playin' my horn for 30 years! I just wanted to talk to y'all. So many artists get on the stage, play, leave & and never say a word - not even the names of the songs!" The audience applauded loudly.
To me, the best song that night was "Yesterday." He explained it wasn't the Beatles' song "Yesterdays." It has great feeling and pathos.
Some of the subjects of his monologues that are on the tapes include Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder, The Osmonds, Disco, & Boogie Woogie. I wish he were still around so that he could verbally and musically deal with people like Kenny G!
By the time the third set rolled around, I was recording everything. In what I would later come to know as true Los Angeles fashion, most of the audience didn't stick around for the end.
After the last set, I saw that Rahsaan was left setting in his chair on the stage and a few people were approaching and greeting him. Dare I? Well, I did, but I didn't say anything of consequence; just the usual lame "I'm a big fan" or something similar.
During the long drive home, I decided I'd see Rahsaan's last night (Sunday). But on Sunday morning, I realized I didn't have any more cash. Since this was before the ATM, I had no easy way to get more. Oh well, I'll just catch him the next time he comes into town. Unfortunately, he died less than six months later, on December 5, 1977.

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