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Roland Kirk in Swinging London

roland-kirkHere’s a surprise: in the middle of an assembly of frames snipped from contact prints included in a Photographers’ Gallery show of the work of the late Terence Donovan, there’s a picture of Roland Kirk. It was taken in 1963, during the American multi-instrumentalist’s first visit to London, when he played a season at Ronnie Scott’s Club — the original one on Gerrard Street in Chinatown — and a few concert dates around the country.

Donovan was primarily a fashion photographer — one of the trio of working-class London boys, along with David Bailey and Brian Duffy, who revolutionised the profession in the early ’60s — and his image of Kirk is surrounded by shots of Jean Shrimpton (to be seen directly above Kirk), Celia Hammond, Paulene Stone and other celebrated models of the era.

I saw Kirk for the first time during that short tour in 1963, in Nottingham, where he was accompanied by a British rhythm section. He had yet to add the “Rahsaan” to his name, and he was still wearing a dark business suit on stage. He was startlingly good, whether playing three reed instruments at once — the skill that had brought him to public attention — or just one. And to preface his tune “We Free Kings” he spent a good five minutes telling a very funny and very hip version of the story about the Three Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem, holding his audience spellbound.

The music-related element of the Photographers’ Gallery show also includes Donovan’s nice colour portrait of Jimi Hendrix, swathed in silks, from 1967, his famous videos for Malcolm McLaren’s “Madame Butterfly” and Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”, and his series of portraits of British pop stars — including Elvis Costello, Jarvis Cocker, Supergrass and Bryan Ferry — for an issue of GQ magazine in the 1990s.

But it was the reminder of Kirk that I took away. There’s a new documentary about him, Adam Kahan’s The Case of the Three-Sided Dream, which is just out on DVD. It includes a marvellous sequence from a 1971 edition of the Ed Sullivan Show on which Rahsaan leads a band including Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp and Roy Haynes. After Sullivan has announced that they’ll be playing “My Cherie Amour”, they cut loose instead on a wild version of Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song”. Sullivan takes it in his stride; following the appearances of Elvis Presley in 1956 and the Beatles in 1964, it was his third great moment of musical history — and maybe the one that finished him off, since his show ended its 23-year run a few weeks later.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Adam Glasser #

    Loved the anecdote about Roland Kirk at the old Ronnie Scott’s – I remember one of his last appearances c.1977 at the present club where he had already had a stroke & was without the use of one arm, yet still able play several instruments at once while circular breathing.

    September 18, 2016
    • I met Rahsaan in a club north of Boston two weeks before his passing and he was still amazing playing with one hand. He was a a force of nature, incredibly creative. and very articulate. He had the ability to play the whole history of Black Classical Music (as he termed it) at his finger tips. It was an honor to spend just a brief amount of time with him.

      September 18, 2016
  2. clive langer #

    Hello again, I was a runner at the Roundhouse in the early 70,s and assingned to look after Roland Kirk. I was 13/14 and he told me off (“I’d kick your ass if you was my kid”) when I told him I could get him something to smoke!’ C

    Sent from my iPhone

    September 18, 2016
  3. Free-form jazz drummer and close associate of the late Ian Dury recalls the Kirk-effect at Ronnie’s (‘Old Place’), early 1960s: “The biggest show we saw was Roland Kirk at Ronnie Scott’s. Ian [Dury] and I sat in the front row immediately underneath Kirk’s microphone. It was a low stage and he was swinging his tenor backwards and forwards, almost touching our noses. You have to remember Kirk was blind. In the interval we approached him and Ian went up to him and shook his hand. Kirk said, “I know you, you’re the cats in the front row!’ Ian was made up.”

    September 18, 2016
  4. Myles Palmer #

    (TYPO : Archie Shepp)
    KIRK WAS A ONE-OFF. Nobody like him.We put him on at Manchester Tech, a concert hall where he didn’t draw a big crowd despite lots of publicity(posters, photos, preview in the student paper. Saw Yusef Lateef at a jazz club that may have been called Club ’49. Spartan furniture, British rhythm section.

    September 18, 2016
  5. There’s fine footage of Kirk wondering in Regent’s Park and at Ronnie’s (with Phil Seaman) from the 1967 doc Sound. Also features John Cage interviewed on the swings behind St Giles Church!

    September 19, 2016
    • That’s terrific, Mike. Thanks. The bass player is Dave Green, I’m pretty sure. But who’s the pianist?

      September 19, 2016
      • Colin Harper #

        The pianist is Johnny Burch and it is indeed Dave Green on bass. They were the other two-thirds of the Phil Seamen Trio, booked to back Roland for his four week run at Ronnie’s spanning Monday 17 October 1966 to saturday 12 November 1966, plus some regional dates.

        Roland missed the first night, having arrived at NY airport to find his passport was out of date. Pete King got Bud Freeman to play the Monday night at short-notice, with the MM’s ‘Raver’ column asking ‘Will Bud’s successful one-nighter at the Ronnie Scott club mean a permanent breach in the club’s all-modern policy?’

        Of the Kirk season, Georgie Fame was quoted around the time saying ‘it was a stroke of genius to back him with Phil Seamen. Roland won’t know what’s happening! I really think he’ll enjoy it.’

        Roland gave an interview to Chris Welch during this period saying of the RSC season: ‘it’s been very good, beautiful. the musicians – Johnny Burch, Dave Green, Phil Seamen and myself – have got along very well, and we’ve got a good feeling… Everything’s working out fine.’

        MM’s Bob Houston, reviewing an early show in the run, said: ‘accusations that Kirk is the jazz equivalent of a three ring circus may have some foundation, but in between all the antics there still emerges a passionate and swinging musician. You can keep psychedelia. I’ll have Roland Kirk any day!’

        Roland had been at the RSC several times before this run but this one was notable for featuring Norma Winstone, in her first significant headline booking, playing opposite Roland for the 4 weeks. She was backed by the Gordon Beck Trio plus Ronnie Scott. I believe she was the first British vocalist, of either gender, to headline at the club.

        This Kirk season was also notable for being the first one subsequent to the Stan Tracey Trio standing down as the house band after several years. They played with Ernestine Anderson opposite the Horace Silver quintet during a four-week Sept-Oct run.

        It’s handy have a stash of 1966 Melody Maker’s to hand, isn’t it? 🙂

        September 19, 2016
  6. That film clip with Mingus, Shepp and Roy Haynes is classic. Seeing Rahaan sporting a rainbow coloured poncho and honking the horn on his walking stick – which had a wheel on the end and was adorned with various bells – alongside Joe Habad Texidor – complete with Shepherds crook – walking down a decidedly grey Charing Cross Road to Dobell’s in the very early Seventies was a MOMENT! When he asked me what record I planned to buy I told him ‘Ascension’… he replied ‘ ‘Chasin’ The Trane’ maaan! Get ‘Chasin’ The Trane’….

    September 19, 2016
  7. Paul sherratt #

    When I saw the partial email title I was really hoping it would say Roland Kirk in Swindon…


    September 20, 2016
  8. Mike durell #

    I remember my late friend John Burch saying that one of his embarassing moments was guiding R.Kirk round Woolworths in Stockport one saturday afternoon as he tried out various tin-whistles to distribute to the audience that evening to take part in “the whistle man”.

    September 21, 2016
    • Paul Messam #

      What a great story!

      August 22, 2019
  9. Paul Messam #

    I came to Roland Kirk late in life but as they say better late than never. Listening to a newly arrived vinyl copy of Volunteered Slavery and Googling ‘Ed Williams’ the writer of the sleeve notes brought me here. Trust Richard Williams to have dug Roland, RW introduced me to so much great music as a young man when he was writing for Melody Maker, still my favourite commentator on the music of our era and now for me Roland Kirk is right up there in the gallery of extraordinary talents.

    August 22, 2019

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