The Forgotten Colossus: Rahsaan Roland Kirk is Little-Known, Even in His Hometown
As the 50th anniversary of a legendary local performance approaches, it’s time to revive the memory of the city’s greatest musical genius.
The random encounter left a huge impression on Todd Barkan. In 1955, the then-9-year-old Bexley kid hopped on a bus to see the Columbus Jets baseball team play on Mound Street on the near West Side. During that bus ride, Barkan met a blind, Black, 20-year-old musician, with pendants and a nose flute hanging around his neck. “I was so astounded by his overall presence that it was like meeting someone from another planet,” Barkan recalls.
From there, a lifelong friendship grew, one built upon the pair’s shared love of music. Barkan went on to become a jazz impresario, running the famed club Keystone Korner in San Francisco, producing records for Fantasy/Milestone, HighNote and other labels, and earning the title “Jazz Master” from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2018. His bus buddy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, went on to become an even more significant figure—an unparalleled virtuoso and the most consequential musical genius ever to come out of Columbus.
Born and raised in a Columbus neighborhood now wiped from the map, Kirk jammed with Jimi Hendrix, played Carnegie Hall and toured the world playing three saxophones—at the same time. He performed with Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, and once led a national movement to disrupt live television broadcasts in the early 1970s to protest discrimination in the music and entertainment industry in what he called “Plantation America.” He was—as he once put it—“Black, blind and brilliant.”
In his day, Kirk’s primary instruments were three saxophones that hung around his neck (along with a whistle), while a flute usually sat in the bell of one of the horns. Toss in a clarinet, a nose flute, pieces of a garden hose and an electrified “evil box” (a rectangular humming cube), and Kirk’s sonic soul train was at full steam. Some of the basis for his otherworldly sound came from the ancient technique of circular breathing, enabling him to sustain notes and achieve unique phrasing that most musicians find impossible.
“Let me put it to you this way: With Rahsaan, you really had to see it to believe it,” says Greg Bandy, a drummer known as “the mayor of Harlem,” who played with Kirk in the jazz clubs dotting Manhattan. “And you’ve never seen anything like it.”
In the late 1950s, Kirk left Columbus for greener musical pastures and rarely looked back. After all, he had a fraught relationship with his hometown, a place that never appreciated his genre-bending, mind-blowing sound experiments like audiences in New York, Europe and other cultural capitals did. Today, outside of jazz connoisseurs and history buffs, it’s hard to find many people locally who’ve ever heard of Kirk. When he died in 1977, The Columbus Dispatch didn’t even write a news obit. “I call him the forgotten colossus of Columbus,” says Jack Marchbanks, the longtime host of the Sunday afternoon jazz show on WCBE who founded a scholarship program with the Kirk family in the musician’s honor.
But as the golden anniversary of a fabled local performance approaches, Kirk is emerging again from the shadows of time, backed by a chorus of fans and a younger generation of musicians harmonizing around a dream that his memory will one day be more fully honored in Columbus. With Kirk’s boyhood home demolished, and the local jazz clubs he played now mere ghosts, you might think the musician who once claimed he could “hear the sun” is long gone. But this man who believed deeply in spirits and dreams is still among us. You just have to know where to look.
Kirk’s Old Neighborhood
You could start by looking for Kirk in Flytown—or what’s left of it (which isn’t much).
Born into a working-class family who lived in the Black and immigrant neighborhood, Ronald Kirk—he later changed his name to Roland and then added Rahsaan—was one of Gertrude and Theodore Kirk’s seven children (two boys, five girls). The family operated a small confectionary store, which sat in front of the family home, selling potato chips, soda pop, candy and other sweets near the corner of Pennsylvania and Buttles avenues, in what we now call Victorian Village.
At his birth in 1935, he was nearly sightless, with just the ability to distinguish light from dark. An accident at a Columbus hospital left him blind for the rest of his life. “He was saying that he could see shadows, but then, all of a sudden, he couldn’t see anything after he got about 3 years old,” says Kirk’s sister, Candice Kirk-Howell, 71, who lives in Driving Park. “The lady put the wrong stuff or too much stuff in his eyes.”
From his earliest days, music was everything to Kirk, blowing into a garden hose before his mother found him a beat-up bugle. “My mom used to take him to the secondhand store and stuff because he was experimenting with the water hose,” Kirk-Howell says. “He wanted a horn because of the sound he got from the water hose.”
As Kirk’s all-encompassing passion for music progressed, his earliest influences were relatives and neighbors who played music in the family home and at their place of worship, the Church of Christ of the Apostolic Faith, which sat at Collins and Pennsylvania avenues, catty-corner to the Kirk family home. “We were raised under gospel and blues and that kind of stuff,” says Kirk-Howell, the youngest of the Kirk children. “We had an uncle that played the piano really well, and our family was very musical; they were in the choir. As a little kid, what I remember was the house was full of music.”
While Kirk was self-taught on the bugle and trumpet—which he stopped playing after a doctor said it could damage his eyeballs—he received more formal musical training on the clarinet and the saxophone in the school band at the Ohio State School for the Blind, which he attended from 1941 to 1953.
The Million-Dollar Block
You could look for Kirk where he played his first gigs.
At age 15, Kirk began playing professionally in a Columbus band fronted by drummer Boyd Moore that performed jazz and top 40 R&B for predominately white crowds, according to a 2000 Kirk biography, “Bright Moments,” written by John Kruth. Kirk felt exploited by Moore, who billed him as “the Walking Blind Man” and expected him to walk through the crowd once a set, navigating a maze of tables without so much as knocking a drink over.
Around this time, Kirk had a dream in which he was playing three horns at once. The next day, he and childhood friend Gene Walker, a stellar Columbus saxophonist in his own right, headed to Gaetz Music House on West Long Street. Shop owner Charles Gaetz, a German Jew who had taken a liking to Kirk, rummaged around in his basement before finding a pair of outdated horns played by Spanish military bands.
“Kirk made alterations to the instruments with tape and rubber bands, working out a way that he could play them simultaneously with his tenor saxophone,” according to “Listen for the Jazz,” a Columbus jazz history book. “He later named one instrument a ‘stritch’ (resembles a soprano saxophone but sounded like an alto) and the other a ‘manzello’ (resembles an alto saxophone in construction but sounds like a soprano). The result was three-part harmony.”
During the 1950s, with segregation informally enforced in Columbus, the epicenter for Columbus jazz was the area of Long Street and Mount Vernon Avenue in the heart of the Black community on the Near East Side. Dubbed “The Million-Dollar Block,” the Black-owned theaters, clubs, restaurants and pool halls kept the crossroads hopping with people and music. “Columbus was a go-through place,” says Candy Watkins, a ComFest organizer and one of the authors of “Listen for the Jazz.” “Columbus had more music than you could imagine. It was a big music scene, so it was easy to get lost in it and not really get the recognition that you should.”
Columbus resident Eugene Jennings, a friend of the Kirk family, says he saw Kirk perform at a series of Columbus clubs, including the Club 502 at Leonard and St. Clair avenues, the Club Regal on Long Street across from the Lincoln Theatre, Club Cadillac at 542 N. 20th St. and the Carolyn Club on the South Side. Jennings says Kirk heard music everywhere, all the time. “I remember he once told me the dial tone of the phone was in the key of D,” he recalls.
Raleigh Randolph, the son of a prominent Columbus jazz bassist and singer also named Raleigh, saw Kirk play periodically in jam sessions at the Regal and the Taj Mahal in the 1960s and 1970s when he returned to Columbus to visit family. “He was a really energetic guy and unique kind of guy,” he says. “He was hell on drummers, though—he would do a fast, up-tempo number and then really slow things down on the flute and play a blues tune.” Randolph says Kirk liked to mess with his drummers by placing a large gong next to them and banging it while they were working to keep the tempo.
It was a golden era for jazz in Columbus, with music spilling out of clubs every few blocks, Randolph says. “There was jazz everywhere; Columbus was on the circuit,” he says. “You know, Rahsaan always said that he didn’t play three horns as a gimmick; he played them because that’s how he heard the music in his head.”
Indeed, Kirk grew frustrated with Columbus musicians and audiences who viewed him as a novelty rather than a true musician. “I don’t feel at home in my hometown,” his biography quotes him as saying. “It’s very backwards, very asleep.”
Candice Kirk-Howell says a jazz club underneath the old Cameo Theatre—a cinema near East 20th and Mount Vernon avenues that was shuttered in 1962—was the breaking point for her brother. “He was playing there, and you know how he plays, his wild music and stuff, and they threw him out of the club because they couldn’t get into his music,” she says. “Now, everyone wants to get on the Rahsaan Roland Kirk bandwagon, but back then, they couldn’t get into what he was doing. They couldn’t understand it.”
Dorthaan Kirk, Rahsaan’s widow, says her husband resented the lack of appreciation for his talent in Columbus when he was coming up. “He always said, ‘You aren’t appreciated at home; you always are considered local.’ And Rahsaan hated it when you said ‘local musician,’” she says during a recent interview.
In search of more appreciative audiences and bigger stages, Kirk lit out on a Greyhound bus for Los Angeles in the late 1950s, before permanently hitting the road, migrating from town to town through the South and Midwest like a musical Pied Piper wrapped in instruments. Ted McDaniel, a retired professor of African American music at Ohio State University, says Kirk’s music was so beyond what people were used to hearing that it kept him from being more adored by the public in Columbus and throughout his career. “He crossed so many boundaries creatively and thus many dismiss that. They dismiss him largely out of their own ignorance, their own conventional expectations that he should only do this.”
McDaniel says Kirk’s activism—protesting cultural whitewashing by the music industry—also played a role in his lack of mainstream acceptance. “Part of the reason he did not receive the media attention and support and coverage was because he was an activist, and he was outspoken,” McDaniel says. “He spoke with courage and conviction about the reality of his life experience.”
Kirk Headlines the Second ComFest
You might look for Kirk at ComFest—but not the five-stage, three-day extravaganza at Goodale Park. Nah, the real ComFest.
On June 2, 1973, Kirk, by then an internationally known jazz musician, headlined the Saturday night show at the second ComFest, which began as a neighborhood affair in the University District. Kirk’s ComFest set—a fairly rare, full-fledged musical homecoming for him—is fondly, but not vividly, recalled by a dwindling number of the festival’s original organizers and attendees.
Once 20-something hippies who banded together to fight the Vietnam draft and support grassroots, left-wing political causes, the OGs of ComFest are now getting into their golden years, with tie-dyes and memories fading fast. “Anybody who tells you they remember the show is lying,” says Watkins, the jazz historian who was in the crowd for the Kirk show but has “zero” memory of it.
That year’s ComFest was essentially a street party held on East 16th Avenue, a football toss away from Bernie’s Bagels at 16th and High Street (where a Target department store now stands). With the campus road blocked off for the festivities, the lone stage stood in the middle of 16th Avenue, while lining the street were tables advertising the Columbus food co-op, the Tenant’s Union, the Columbus Free Press, the Huckleberry House and a free medical clinic.
“We were the hippie fest that nobody wanted to have anything to do with,” says Roger Doyle, a ComFest fixture. “We thought we could get some information out about our groups and causes by selling beer and having music across from the university.”
After 50 years, the fog of memory hangs like a thick cloud over many who saw Kirk’s show that night. But one man’s memories break through the haze. “I’ve lived in Columbus all my life, and I had never heard of, let alone heard, Rahsaan before that,” wrote Steve Abbott, a poet and retired Columbus State professor, in an email. “All I recall is that I was mesmerized by the unfamiliar song structures and Rahsaan’s playing of multiple reed instruments at the same time. ‘Volunteered Slavery’ is the only piece I actually remember. I walked around humming the refrains ‘Oh, volunteered slavery has got me on the run’ and ‘Oh, volunteered slavery is something we all know’ for days.”
Abbott remembers a stage bathed in yellow light as Kirk performed with four or five other jazz musicians while an astonished, lively crowd danced on the hill of the nearby Wesley Foundation. “It was great. Nobody expected what they heard,” Abbott says. “It was so far removed from anything people had ever heard.”
Doyle says blues promoter Myron Schwartz “had a hand” in reaching Kirk and arranging for him to play. The hat was passed that night to gather funds to pay the jazz great. Howard Brenner, an early ComFest attendee who missed the 1973 show, says he was told later by his friend Don Voss about paying Kirk. (Both Schwartz and Voss have died.)
“Don told me Kirk said, ‘Give me the big bills,’ and he put them in one pocket, and he said, ‘Give me the little s---,’ and he put them in the other pocket,” Brenner says.
You might look for Kirk at his sister’s house in Driving Park.
Inside her front room dominated by a black grand piano, Candice Kirk-Howell sits on a small couch and opens a weathered photo album full of color pictures. Here’s her brother playing at Shea Stadium. Here’s her brother and Charles Mingus and Roberta Flack grinning for the camera in candid moments. Here are jazz luminaries too numerous to count, performing with her brother across Europe and Australia. “I look through these albums every now and then,” she says softly. “It brings back such memories.”
As her tabby cat—Mr. Kisses—appears briefly to investigate a new visitor, she continues on. “Rahsaan, he’s still here,” Kirk-Howell says. “I feel him all the time, yep. My daughter thinks that’s Rahsaan—the cat.”
The Big Idea: A Statue of Kirk
And finally, you might look for Kirk in bronze at City Hall, though you won’t find him there—not yet, anyway.
While the dream of a statue of Kirk in Columbus has been informally kicked around by musicians for years—and was even presented as appearing at Goodale Park in a comic strip by artist and guitar player Julian Dassai in a June 2013 issue of (614) Magazine—the idea never gathered much momentum.
However, in the spring of 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic raging, drummer and local sound man Nick Schuld launched a Change.org petition to replace the statue of Christopher Columbus with one of Kirk. Recently, in a brief interview after manning the sound board at a bluegrass show at Ace of Cups, Schuld says he started the petition because it “always seemed a shame” that Kirk wasn’t more widely known in his hometown. The petition has gathered nearly 1,200 signatures, including that of Kirk’s widow, Dorthaan, who lives in New Jersey.
After the Kirk petition began, following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the statue of Columbus was removed from its pedestal next to City Hall upon the order of Mayor Andy Ginther on July 1, 2020. When Ginther announced his decision, he said, “Now is the right time to replace this statue with artwork that demonstrates our enduring fight to end racism and celebrate the themes of diversity and inclusion.”
Mike Brown, chief of staff to Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin, says council members “like the idea of a [Kirk] statue” but are waiting on the Public Art Commission “to do some work before City Hall is open for discussion. … But we have many other sites to consider, also.”
Told of the grassroots effort to put a statue of her brother at City Hall, Kirk-Howell laughs. “You’re kidding me, right? Well, what better place? Everyone could see it.”
Cincinnati artist John Leon, who created a sculpture in relief of Kirk at the Ohio State School for the Blind, has already envisioned a grander Kirk tribute. “My lifelong dream is still to create a life-sized sculpture of Rahsaan cast in bronze,” he says.
For Kirk’s lifelong friend, Todd Barkan, a tribute to the legendary musician would redeem Columbus for having given Kirk the cold shoulder more than a half-century ago. “I am deeply excited about the petition to make a statue of RRK to supplant Christopher Columbus,” says Barkan, who lives in Baltimore today. “My dear buddy would be as thrilled by that as his wish to have his remains put in a bag of pot and smoked by his friends.”
Kirk suffered a stroke two days before Thanksgiving in 1975. He fought back, had his instruments modified to play with one hand, recorded another album and continued to tour.
The legendary annual Newport Jazz Festival’s midnight jam session in July 1976 was dedicated in part to raising $20,000 to aid in Kirk’s convalescence, drawing such luminaries as Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie. “But the high point of the session came, appropriately, with the entrance of Kirk,” wrote The New York Times. “Surrounded by a galaxy of jazz stars, Mr. Kirk, who used to play two and three instruments at once, showed that even with one hand, he is still more than a match for most saxophonists. Producing a tone as strong, full and positive as before his illness, his playing still had the driving power and mercurial imagination that have always been his hallmark.”
After a concert in Bloomington, Indiana, he had a second stroke that took his life on Dec. 5, 1977. He was laid to rest at Evergreen Burial Park in North Central Columbus in a family plot near his mother and father.
Perhaps someday, when you go looking for Rahsaan Roland Kirk, you might just find him, looking down on you from a perch next to City Hall. He’ll be the guy playing three horns at once, whose music went all around the universe before finally coming home.
This story is from the May 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.