Eighteen years ago a song unlike any music I’d ever heard by someone I’d never heard of before altered the course of my life. One day in a jazz history class, amid the staples of Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, the professor slipped on a record by Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
“The Inflated Tear” sounded like the entire spectrum of the history of African-American music rolled into one four-minute song: old slavery spirituals, work songs, field hollers, soul, modern jazz, and early blues. It was like a Duke Ellington reed section, yet more emotional, more intimate, with a sound that ached of centuries. It was like listening to the inside of someone’s heart.
Best known for his ability to play three saxophones simultaneously, Rahsaan Roland Kirk lived from 1935 to 1977. Despite losing his sight as a child and suffering a paralyzing stroke, he kept playing the music that came to him, sometimes through dreams, until his death at 42.
Kirk heard music in car honks and train whistles–the sounds of shattering glass, police sirens, and chirping birds were all at home in his compositions. He played everything that crossed his path, beginning with the water hose he picked up at age four, and he later commanded more than forty instruments, some of which he fabricated himself. He pushed sound and music through his battery of over-worked horns, held together by his favorite on-the-spot repair: masking tape. He was always draped in glittering instruments and wore a heavy necklace weighed down by charms and amulets he’d received as gifts. A club owner once described him as looking like “a musical Christmas tree.”
A year after graduating college with an English degree, I lived in a tiny, crumbling garage apartment behind the university, and my life was now a patchwork of odd jobs and indecision. That’s when I found a VHS tape of a performance Kirk gave in Switzerland during the 1970s. This was pre-YouTube, so I’d never seen any footage of him before. It was the most powerful performance I had ever seen.
Here was this blind man on stage in such complete and utter command of his surroundings that I soon forgot about his blindness altogether. Between songs he deftly adjusted mic stands, rearranged his horns, and directed the rest of the band. He played his two saxophones at once and then tossed one aside when it was time for his tenor solo. He kept time with a foot cymbal and a large gong. He demolished a wooden chair and broke it into pieces and beat the stage with its remains.
In that instant, despite my stature as a recent college grad living in Texas who hadn’t even written one article on jazz—my one published piece of music writing at that point was a small music review in a local paper—I decided that I had to write a book about him. I would track down everyone who knew him while they were still alive, I would collect their stories of him in the hopes of preserving Rahsaan’s legacy.
Although my minor was in music, I had only begun to learn the history of jazz and blues. The jazz world seemed vast and daunting with those in the know constantly rattling off jazz trivia as though discussing the NFL. The entire surrounding culture seemed male-dominated, overly-intellectual, and like a secret club.
Here’s where things get weird. I was writing about Rahsaan because he was calling to me. That longing to know him was so insatiable that I spent the next several years traveling around the country and beyond, scraping together just enough money and living on maxed out credit cards in the single-minded pursuit of hearing stories told by those who knew him.
This emotional quest led me from the basement of a London jazz club to his Ohio boyhood haunts and eventually to the bed where he once slept. This quest took on a serendipitous feel. Crucial leads would appear out of nowhere, coincidences became turning points, and I eventually began to trust what his widow Dorthaan had insisted from the first time I met her: “There is some connection between you two.” Days after my first urge to write a book about Rahsaan, I found out he’d died on my birthday, the day I turned four.
I soon learned he had this magical effect on every life he touched. Those closest to him felt moved by his spirit. Grown men broke down in tears telling me stories about him. A wisdom encircled Rahsaan that had folks believing he had something greater to say, something supreme to impart each time he spoke. Part southern preacher, part stand-up comic, part ancient-prophet—Rahsaan’s voice boomed with authority with his words always aimed at delivering the most hard-hitting truths. “He has the voice of a king,” someone once said.
Rahsaan never allowed obstacles, including blindness, to stand in his way. “I’m a man, first. So-called blindness is secondary. I don’t believe, that when I pick up an instrument, I’m blind to anyone.” He never faltered in his conviction, even when faced with confounded critics who continually dismissed his genius as a circus act, a gimmick, or even a blind man’s freak show.
Two years before he died Rahsaan suffered a debilitating stroke and lost the use of the right side of his body. Doctors told him that he would never play music again. After several months of therapy, it was clear that he would not regain the use of his right hand. Unstoppable even after this harshest blow, Rahsaan devised a way to play his horns with the use of only his left hand. “I felt that urgency,” he told an interviewer. Just nine months after his stroke, Rahsaan made a heroic comeback and continued to record and tour until his death.
Once you know Rahsaan, you begin believing anything is possible. Rahsaan not only showed me my path in life, he also gave me the courage to follow it. I set off at twenty-three: naive, unsure, and without a clue. All I had was the deepest longing I had ever felt and the haunting sounds of “The Inflated Tear” pursuing me. I had to know Rahsaan.