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(Credit: Julian Dassai)

The 5,000-Pound Man

The Audio Dreamworld of Rahsaan Roland Kirk

By Kevin J. Elliott

Published June 1, 2013

Why a 2,000-pound statue for a 5,000-pound man?

Recently I was digging for Rahsaan Roland Kirk sides at Jerry’s in Pittsburgh, self-proclaimed home of “The World’s Best Vinyl.” Crammed floor to ceiling with jazz records from all eras, Jerry’s should have been the location where I’d have no trouble finding the artist I was searching for.

The clerk didn’t recognize the name. I had to write it down. He returned somewhat dazed with his own negligence. “I’d never heard of him,” he said, “but when we get his records in they’re gone immediately. Apparently he’s bigger than Miles Davis these days.”

Jimi Hendrix thought so, even back then. The legendary guitarist, who changed the way millions thought about music, considered Kirk to be a master, and was so in awe of him that when they first jammed together, he was hoping just not to step on his toes. (Just before he died, Hendrix quipped to Melody Maker, “I tell you, when I die I’m not going to have a funeral. I’m going to have a jam session ... Roland Kirk will be there and I’ll try to get Miles Davis along if he feels like making it.”

Therein lies the legacy of Columbus native Roland Kirk, who amassed a body of work so overwhelming and beyond its time that stories about him have become folklore, yet he remains a misunderstood obscurity to those outside the jazz cannon (and many within it).

Don’t get hung up that Kirk once quipped his hometown was a place “you don’t go to,” but rather, “you go through” – the capital city was integral to his development.

Born Ronald Kirk, he was experimenting on the stages and bus seats of Columbus as a teenager, before migrating to the much more lucrative jazz scene in Chicago. It was there where he became “Rahsaan Roland” and caught the eye of Charles Mingus, who took Kirk under his wing. Not fond of being a sideman, he was soon touring the world as his own bandleader. He didn’t hate Columbus – nor did he love Columbus – he was just a nomad searching for those utopian worlds he saw in his dreams.

As for the 5,000-pound man riff? That was a moniker Kirk gave to himself. Though the origin is unknown, anyone who witnessed the man in person (or via one of the many mesmerizing clips of him on YouTube) know he was always the proverbial elephant in the room. Visually, his presence was stunning. During a usual performance, he had three saxophones, various woodwinds, whistles, and instruments that he modified all hanging from his monolithic frame. Kirk wanted to be the center of attention. If that meant being a sideshow, so be it – he knew his music would stand on its own.

It was a constant paradox Kirk lived with through his brief life. He was a blind man as mobile and independent as any person with sight. His contemporaries called him a gimmick, but if he felt you were a fraud, he would play back your solo with twice the instruments and twice the notes, thanks to his mastery of circular breathing. His music existed in an unclassifiable realm – too avant-garde for the bebop crowd, too classic for the free pioneers – and Kirk’s discography runs the gamut of jazz from Dixieland and Duke Ellington to Coltrane, tape loops, and even his own interpolations of the pop music of the time.

Trying to decipher his dexterity is beside the point. Kirk’s compositions were so gorged with imagination and vibrancy that his music was something wholly universal. Without sight, Kirk not only focused on the sonic force of his playing, he wanted the audience to smell fragrances and see colors. He wanted listeners to journey inside their own heads, to ignore the reality around them.

Those inner-visions were well documented in his early ’70s peak on albums like Bright Moments and The Case of the 3-Sided Dream in Audio Color, but for Kirk, records weren’t enough. He was also extremely vocal; not just in his performances, which included rousing choruses and lengthy spoken words about the African-American condition, but in his efforts to take the artform beyond smoky clubs with the formation of the Jazz and People’s Movement. Kirk pushed for jazz to be recognized as “black classical music.”

He and his cohorts would infiltrate live audiences of television talk shows to have their voices heard. The coup resulted in a celebrated Ed Sullivan appearance; suddenly the 5,000-pound man was in every suburban living room.

Despite his limitations, Kirk managed to push forward. Suffering a major stroke in 1975 that left half of his body paralyzed, Kirk learned to play with one hand. He continued to tour up until the night of his death in 1977, where a second stroke finally got him after a show in Bloomington, Indiana.

In many ways, Kirk was emblematic of the city he once called home – a resilient figure capable of surprises and unparalleled innovation that many are just starting to discover. That’s why the commemoration of Kirk as a striking bronze figure, peering out from a corner in Goodale Park and into what was the working-class bustle of Flytown, is the least we could do to offer thanks.

In the immortal words of Rahsaan, “Everyone has a dream. Everything has a scheme. Let’s all search for the reason why.” That’s a mantra this city could live by.