Roland Kirk


A couple of days ago, with regard to the above album, I mentioned seeing the American multi-instrumentalist jazzman Roland Kirk at the Marquee Club in London; returning, this morning, to a poem I wrote about watching and listening to Kirk play, it states, clearly, that I saw him at St. Pancras Town Hall. So what? Did I see him twice? It’s possible. Or is my memory playing tricks? It scarcely matters. It’s the impact I remember clearly, not the venue. The way he sang/mumbled/hummed and played flute simultaneously (a trick later copied by others, including the late Tubby Hayes); played, as one of the following poems says, three reed instruments at once, two of them, I think, bolted together; the manner in which he punctuated his solos with a shrill blast from the whistle that hung down from his neck. Gimmicks? Maybe. But, for him, the channels of expression he needed to give vent to the music that seemed to surge through every fibre of his body.



It’s been my pleasure on a good many occasions in the past to read the following two poems, “What Would You Say?” and “You Did It! You Did It!” with various aggregations of musicians, most notably the band, Second Nature, featuring Mel Thorpe on flute and Kirkian whoops and vocals. Sample it, if you wish, on Till It Shines, the CD we made back in 2004. A few copies still available and yours for a tenner, all proceeds donated to Medecin Sans Frontiers.


Scan 2


What Would You Say?

What would you say of a man who can play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch  – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?

Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boars –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?

Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
gourd, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?

Would you say he was blind?

Would you say he was missing you?

You Did It! You Did It!

It was Roland Kirk, wasn’t it?
Who played all those instruments?
I saw him. St.Pancras Town Hall.
Nineteen sixty four.

The same year, at the old Marquee,
I saw Henry ‘Red’ Allen,
face swollen like sad fruit,
sing ‘I’ve Got the World on a String’
in a high almost falsetto moan.

Rahassan Roland Kirk,
on stage in this cold country,
cramming his mouth with saxophones,
harmonica, reed trumpet, piccolo and clarinet,
exultant, black and blind.

You did it! You did it!
You did it! You did it!

Daring us to turn our backs,
stop our ears, our hearts,
deny the blood wherever it leads us:
the whoop and siren call
of flutes and whistles,
spiralling music, unconfined.

Author: John Harvey


2 thoughts on “Roland Kirk”

  1. Thanks for the kind remarks about the poems; the music (still) speaks for itself.

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