Updated: Jan 10
By 1960, it had been three years since King Records released his debut Triple Threat album and Roland Kirk had left Columbus for good. He felt underappreciated in his hometown, but more than anything he felt he was being pigeonholed as a “local artist.” “You have to be a gypsy in this country to make money,” Kirk later told an audience at the Village Vanguard. “When you stay in one place you get tagged and the guys say, ‘Oh that’s a local group, y’know.’” He toured more nationally in 1959 and word of his music began to spread. Kirk signed a contract with Chess Records’ jazz label Argo, resulting in his sophomore release Introducing Roland Kirk.
Argo - LP 669
Kirk’s trio performed as the house band at Club Regal on Long Street in Columbus for virtually the entire year of 1958. Kirk moved from Columbus early in 1959 and lived wherever the gigs took him, never staying in one place very long. But his roots in Columbus were deep and his legacy continues to reverberate. Born in Columbus on August 7, 1935, Kirk lived in Flytown where his parents ran Kirk’s Confectionery in front of their house at 770 Pennsylvania Ave. Always inventive and creative, he began as a musician by cutting a garden hose and playing it like a trumpet. He progressed to bugle and then trumpet by the time he was nine.
At thirteen, Kirk became interested in the saxophone when he heard a neighbor playing and went to investigate. The neighbor let him borrow the sax, and Kirk began practicing after school. His parents took notice of his interest and eventually borrowed the money to get Kirk his own horn. The McCreary brothers also lived in Kirks’ neighborhood. After hearing Kirk playing sax on his porch, one of the brothers invited Kirk over to listen to their records. This opened Kirk’s ears to jazz. Joseph McCreary played bass and cello. His son, Foley, would later play bass with Miles Davis and continues to perform.
Kirk loved the alto sax, but he heard a sound in his head and in his dreams. Kirk’s love of music brought him to all the Columbus record stores and music stores, but the Gaetz Music House on West Long St. had the most interesting stuff. And Mr. Gaetz seemed to understand Kirk’s desire for something different - a sound all his own. Kirk would explain what he wanted and Gaetz would rummage around in the basement to find unusual instruments. One time he emerged with an old damaged King saxello. These were rare even then and had been out of production since the ‘30s, but Gaetz promised he could fix it. Gaetz replaced the bell, creating a unique instrument and Kirk knew this was the sound he’d heard in his dreams. He even made up his own name for it, the moon zellar (later the manzello).
About two years later, Kirk obtained another rare horn from Gaetz. In 1927 and 1928, Buescher made a few hundred straight alto saxes and Gaetz had one, although it also needed repairs. “I worked out on it and realized my search was over,” Kirk told Melody Maker. “I got the exact sounds I wanted.” Kirk also named this horn, calling it the stritch.
Around 1955, Todd Barkan was riding the bus on his way to a Columbus Jets baseball game. The nine-year-old jazz fan heard someone playing sax to the rhythm of the bus. “Back then he was Ronnie Kirk, not even Roland yet,” Barkan told KQED in 2017. “He had his nose flute around his neck. I just kind of sidled up to this interesting-looking dude, approaching gingerly just to ask what kind of instruments he had. I could tell he was a musician. He wasn’t an accountant. He wasn’t going to fix some plumbing. He was a man of interest.”
“It turned out he wasn’t a Columbus Jets fan at all! He was going to meet his girlfriend,” Barkan told Bright Moments author John Kruth. “He started talking about Duke Ellington and he invited me over to his house to listen to some records.” At this time, nineteen-year-old Roland was living with his folks near East High School within walking distance, it turns out, from Barkan’s home across Alum Creek in Bexley. Despite the 10-year age difference, they struck up a friendship.
Barkan would later open the famed jazz club Keystone Korner in San Francisco and he runs its successor in Baltimore today. When Barkan bought the Keystone Korner in 1972, his friendship with Kirk helped him establish it as a key jazz club hosting everyone from Art Blakey to Miles Davis to Jerry Garcia to McCoy Tyner. Many live albums were recorded at the Keystone, including Kirk’s Bright Moments, widely considered one of his best albums.
In 1959 to 1960, a couple of fortuitous run-ins helped Kirk get a record deal. After pianist Ramsey Lewis played a set in Indianapolis, he swung by Kirk's gig at another venue and was blown away. Lewis called Jack Tracy, his producer at Chicago’s Argo records, to tell him about Kirk. “I remember going by after our gig and being wiped out, totally blown away,” Lewis was quoted in Kruth's book Bright Moments. “It was mind-blowing what he would do with multiple horns and make it all make sense and come out as great music.”
Around this time, Kirk was based in Louisville where he sat in on a gig with multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan. “We were at a place called the Tap Room when he came in on his off night and I heard this big stir,” Sullivan recalled. “Well, somebody yelled, ‘Hey, this guy wants to sit in!’ and there was Roland comin’ with his three horns hangin’ ‘round his neck! I… helped him up and we blew. That was our first meeting.” Sullivan was based in Chicago at the time and after playing, Kirk asked if Ira had any contacts in Chicago. Sullivan provided Roland with jazz promoter Joe Segal’s number.
“Hello? This is Roland Kirk,” begin Joe Segal’s liner notes to the Introducing album. “Ira Sullivan said to call you about coming up to play one of your sessions. We jammed together here in Louisville last week.” Connection made, Kirk left for Chicago and showed up at the jam session Segal was running at the Sutherland Hotel. Toward the end of the night, Kirk finally got a chance to play and Segal was so impressed that he told Kirk to find a place to live.
The next order of business was a trip to Argo’s office, where Kirk’s reputation preceded him. “I greeted him, brought him into the office, and he produced (his King Records LP Triple Threat),” recalled Jack Tracy for JazzProfiles. “I played it and was immediately taken by his extraordinary ability to play several instruments at the same time and with great jazz feel. Kirk told me that he and his rhythm section had driven to Chicago to look for a gig and to take a chance that I would record him. I would and did. We got a contract signed, a recording date was set, and the resulting album was issued as ‘Introducing Roland Kirk.’”
The session took place on June 6, 1960, at Chess’ Ter-Mar Studios on Michigan Ave in Chicago. Longtime Kirk pianist William Rahn Burton was at the session. Don Garrett played bass and Sonny Brown was on drums. At Segal’s suggestion, Tracy decided to include Ira Sullivan in the session as well. “(Kirk) was so new! I wanted to make it a little easier to get him heard, and get him some support,” Tracy was quoted in Bright Moments. German jazz journalist Joachim-Ernst Berendt was in the booth for the recording session. Duly impressed, Berendt invited Kirk to play at a jazz festival in Germany. Kirk was skeptical.
Introducing Roland Kirk was released on November 15, 1960, and was met with some perplexed reviews. In an August 1960 Down Beat article, producer Jack Tracy was quoted as saying “I can just hear the critics! They’re going to say, ‘My God, first Ornette Coleman and now this!’” Like most of his albums and Kirk himself, its reputation has risen over time as more and more people get perspective on the magnitude and impact of his artistry.
Opening track The Call appropriately begins with Kirk playing three horns at once. Rahn Burton plays an uncredited organ. “Creating the impression of two different soloists… during Roland’s tenor solo he flips in the manzello with the tenor to provide a booting chord then lets the tenor hang limp and continues full blast on the manzello,” Segal explains in the liner notes.
Sullivan sticks mainly to trumpet, although he is credited on tenor sax as well, possibly trading solos on Soul Station. Three of the six tracks are Kirk’s, while pianist Rahn Burton gets a rare writing credit on Jack The Ripper. Kirk sticks to the manzello on the Gershwin standard Our Love Is Here To Stay.
Berendt was true to his word and Roland played the Essen Jazz Days festival in West Germany at Gruga Hall on April 15, 1961. This turned out to be a turning point in Kirk’s career. A few days later, he’d record a set in Baden-Baden for German television, which can be seen here. The connections he made on this trip, and the heightened profile it provided, gained Kirk a new level of respect in the jazz world culminating with an invitation to join Charles Mingus’s band in October 1961.
After years of being what he called a “journey agent,” Rahsaan Roland Kirk eventually settled down in E. Orange, New Jersey, where his widow Dorthaan Kirk, an NEA Jazz Master herself, still resides. Columbus eventually gave Kirk some love when Mayor Sensenbrenner declared December 10, 1970, Roland Kirk Day. The Rahsaan Roland Kirk Scholarship Fund was established in 2009 and in 2019 the Rahsaan Roland Kirk Scholarship for the Arts was established. In 2013 he was inducted into the Lincoln Theatre Walk of Fame. But hopefully one day Columbus will properly recognize the “complex individual of staggering genius” that was Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
A1 The Call
Composed By – Kirk
A2 Soul Station
Composed By – Kirk
A3 Our Waltz
Composed By – D. Rose
Composed By – Gershwin & Gershwin
B2 Spirit Girl
Composed By – Kirk
Composed By – Burton
Record Company – Argo Record Corp.
Recorded At – Ter Mar Studios
Published By – Arc Music
Published By – Bregman, Vocco & Conn
Published By – Chappell & Co.
Tenor Saxophone, Manzello, Stritch – Roland Kirk
Trumpet, Tenor Saxophone – Ira Sullivan
Piano – William Burton
Bass – Don Garrett
Drums – Sonny Brown