The Forgotten Colossus: An Appreciation of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Music

Musicians and experts discuss the jazz great’s musical genius and unparalleled command of his instruments, even when playing three at the same time.

Chris Davey and Aaron Marshall
Rahsaan Roland Kirk was famous for using a wide array of wind instruments, often playing them at the same time.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk was exceptionally prolific. From his 1957 debut album, Triple Threat, at age 22, to his final album in 1977, Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real, Kirk is credited as the principal artist on at least 28 original albums. The range of styles, instruments and subgenres is unmatched in all of jazz music, which Rahsaan called, "Black classical music.”  

Best known for his powerful tenor saxophone, he also famously would combine it with two much lesser known saxophones from the 1920s that he called the stritch and manzello. He would play these three winds at once, harmonizing all three. He also would intersperse various flutes and other instruments throughout the same song. His use of the ancient technique of circular breathing enabled him to sustain notes and achieve unique phrasing literally impossible to most musicians. He masterfully played several types of flute, including the nose flute (he would sometimes play two at once, one in each nostril). 

He also at times recorded on the trumpet, the piano, the clarinet and other instruments. He even invented an indescribable contraption he played with his foot that he called the “evil box.” After his stroke in 1975, he had his horns and flutes customized to allow him to play with one hand, recorded one more album and continued to tour.  

He visited nearly every modern genre of popular and jazz music of the 20th century during his time, bending and blending them along the way. At one end, he recorded and performed sweetly melodic original compositions like “Serenade to a Cuckoo” and unique but accessible reinterpretations of standards, such as Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” and Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” For the latter, Kirk even wrote original lyrics, celebrating one of his major influences, the saxophonist Lester Young. His flute is also the backbone of Quincy Jones’ “Soul Bossa Nova,” the familiar opening theme song to the movie “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.” 

Listen to Kirk on Spotify

Writer Chris Davey compiled a Spotify playlist, “Rahsaan’s Columbus,” that features nearly 70 of Kirk’s most significant songs.  

On the other end, Kirk composed, produced and performed highly experimental and challenging pieces, such as “Saxophone Concerto,” a 21-minute work with sound effects, spoken word and, at times, dissonant multi-instrumentalization that includes social and historical commentary. 

Local jazz muscian Eddie Bayard with a horn made for Rahsaan Roland Kirk

“What always impressed me about Rahsaan, first of all, his command of the instrument is pretty much unparalleled,” says Columbus saxophonist Eddie Bayard. “He’s the first saxophonist I ever heard who was technically clean and raw at the same time. He never sacrificed the rawness. He’s one of the unique thinkers because he could be inside his own head, but his thought process was completely outside.” 

Bayard says one of the reasons that Kirk’s music isn’t more beloved is because it’s nonsymmetrical. “Symmetry is just math—two plus two. He wasn’t on that. Musically, he’s more like quantum physics. He’s just got too much stuff going on. Cats that are really popular like Coltrane are playing symmetrically like on Giant Steps.” 

Despite facing initial skepticism, Rahsaan’s talent won over jazz critics, who awarded him first place in the Down Beat international critics' poll in 1962, according to the 1977 obituary in The New York Times. He continued to impress year after year, consistently earning top positions in both the flute and "miscellaneous instrument" categories, the Times reported. 

Chris Kelsey, saxophonist, composer and music critic, describes Kirk as “arguably the most exciting saxophone soloist in jazz history. Kirk was a post-modernist before that term even existed.” Quincy Jones crowned him “the Black master of Black classical music.”  

“He was a person of immense creative prowess,” says Ted McDaniel, retired professor of African American music at Ohio State University. “He was a true artist in the sense of his exploration.” 

This story is an extended version of the feature on Rahsaan Roland Kirk from the May 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.