Two screenings of documentary on Columbus jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk take place this weekend
Candice Kirk-Howell can remember the moment her brother, Roland, changed his name. She was living with him in East Orange, New Jersey, and he came down the steps and informed her that he'd heard someone calling him “Rahsaan” in a dream.
“He said, ‘We've got to go to New York,'” said Kirk-Howell, now 65. “‘You've got to find me an outfit and put “Rahsaan” on it.'” She obliged, placing applique letters on a leather outfit. “From that point on, his name was Rahsaan Roland Kirk.”
Her brother was born Ronald Theodore Kirk in 1935 in Columbus (he was directed by a separate dream to change “Ronald” to “Roland”). A medical accident caused him to go blind at an early age, but he went on to become a world-renowned jazz multi-instrumentalist. He was known for playing tenor and other saxophones — often at the same time — and he kept them around his neck, along with flutes, which he'd also mastered. Other tools in his musical repertoire included clarinet, gong and even a garden hose.
He was also celebrated for mastering the circular breathing technique, which allowed him to play non-stop for long periods. He released over two dozen records before his death from a stroke in 1977.
Kirk's remarkable life and career is the subject of Adam Kahan's 2014 documentary, “The Case of the Three Sided Dream,” which will be screened at the Ohio History Center on Saturday and Sunday, August 19 and 20. The showings are presented in part by New Harvest Urban Arts Center, and all donations — $10 is suggested — will benefit the Rahsaan Roland Kirk Scholarship Fund for high school seniors.
“I thought it'd be befitting to continue to promote Columbus' culture,” said New Harvest owner Kwodwo Ababio, whose cafe doubles as a venue for local arts events. “[Kirk] was courageous. … He just took chances with the music and he took it to another level.”
But not everyone accepted Kirk's style, especially in Columbus, Kirk-Howell said, citing a time her brother performed at a nightclub below the old Cameo Theater on Mount Vernon Avenue. “They kicked him out because of the music he was playing,” she said. So when he did come back to Ohio, he'd often go to Gilly's Jazz club in Dayton.
Otherwise, Kirk would be in Chicago, New Jersey, New York or Philadelphia, and Kirk-Howell would live with him on summer breaks from high school. She took care of the household, sewed his outfits and met famous musicians like Stevie Wonder.
Kirk-Howell said watching her brother achieve success without the ability to see inspired her to pursue her dreams, and she hopes others will be similarly inspired.
“We do have some jazz enthusiasts [in Columbus], but young people … need to know about this great person,” she said. “We're trying to keep his legacy alive.”