Rahsaan Roland Kirk was born Ronald Theodore Kirk on August 7, 1935 in Coumbus, Ohio and grew up in the neighborhood called Flytown. He felt compelled by a dream to transpose two letters in his first name to make Roland. He became blind at an early age as a result of poor medical treatment. In 1970 he added “Rahsaan” to his name after hearing it in a dream.
Rahsaan preferred to lead his own bands and rarely did he perform as a sideman, although he did record lead flute and solo on Soul Bossa Nova with arranger Quincy Jones in 1964, as well as drummer Roy Haynes and had notable stints with bassist Charles Mingus. His playing was generally rooted in soul jazz or hard bop but his knowledge of jazz gave him the ability to draw from ragtime to swing to free jazz. In additional to classical influences he borrowed elements from composers like Smokey Robinson and Burt Bacharach, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.
His main instrument was the tenor saxophone and two obscure saxophones: the stritch, a straight alto sax lacking the instrument’s characteristic upturned bell and a manzello, a modified saxello soprano sax, with a larger, upturned bell. Kirk modified these instruments himself to accommodate his simultaneous playing technique. He also played flute, clarinet, harmonica, English horn, recorder and trumpet, as well as incorporating an interesting array of common items such as garden hose, alarm clocks and sirens.
At times Rahsaan would play a number of these horns at once, harmonizing with himself, or sustain a note for lengthy durations by using circular breathing or play the rare, seldom heard nose flute. Many of Kirk’s instruments were exotic or homemade, but even while playing two or three saxophones at once the music was intricate, powerful jazz with a strong feel for the blues. Politically outspoken, he would often talk about issues of the day in between songs at his concerts, such as Black history and the civil rights movement and lacing them with satire and humor. According to comedian Jay Leno, when he toured with him as his opening act, Kirk would introduce him by saying, “I want to introduce a young brother who knows the black experience and knows all about the white devils… Please welcome Jay Leno!”
In 1975, Kirk suffered a major stroke that led to partial paralysis of one side of his body. However, he continued to perform and record, modifying his instruments to enable him to play with one arm. He died from a second stroke on December 5, 1977 after performing in the Frangipani Room of the Indiana University Student Union in Bloomington, Indiana.
His influence went well beyond jazz to include such rock musicians as Jimi Hendrix, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Eric Burdon and War, T.K. Kirk, Hope Clayburn, Jonny Greenwood and Ramon Lopez, all who idolized or paid tribute to, and David Jackson, George Braith and Dick Heckstall-Smith who took to playing multiple saxophones, and Steve Turre, Courtney Pine who utilizing his circular breathing during play. He left to us nearly four-dozen albums as a leader and another eleven with aforementioned Jones, Mingus and Haynes, and Tubby Hayes, Tommy Peltier, Jaki Byard and Les McCann.
Bennie Moten was born on November 13, 1894 in Kansas City, Missouri. By the time he reached his mid-twenties he was leading the Kansas City Orchestra that was the most important of the itinerant, blues-based orchestras active in the Midwest at the time. The band helped develop the riffing style that would come to define many of the 1930s Big Bands.
Moten first recorded with Okeh Records in 1923 influenced by New Orleans and ragtime. His Victor Records sessions had a more sophisticated sound similar to Fletcher Henderson but featured a hard stomp popular to Kansas City.
By 1928 Bennie’s piano was showing some Boogie Woogie influences, but the real revolution came in 1929 when he recruited Count Basie, Walter Page and Oran “Hot Lips” Page. Walter Page’s walking bass lines gave the music an entirely new feel compared to the 2/4 tuba, colored by Basie’s understated, syncopated piano fills.
Their final session comprised of 10 recordings made in 1932 were made during a time when the band was suffering significant financial hardship but had added Ben Webster and Jimmy Rushing as their primary vocalist. These recordings showed the early stages of what became known as the “Basie Sound” some four years before Basie would record under his own name.
Pianist and bandleader Bennie Moten passed away after an unsuccessful tonsillectomy on April 2, 1935.
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Wally Rose was born on October 2, 1913 in Oakland, California. A mainstay of the jazz scene in San Francisco during the 1940s and 1950s, he was the pianist in Lu Watter’s group, and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, for its entire existence from 1939 to 1950. During this period he recorded for the Jazz Man imprint in 1941-42, did several albums for Good Time Jazz and also recorded for Columbia Records.
Following this tenure, through the 1950s Rose played with Bob Scobey and Turk Murphy then did mainly solo work for the rest of his career. He did an album in 1982, which was his first release as a leader in 24 years.
Wally Rose, jazz and ragtime pianist passed away on January 12, 1997 in Walnut Creek, California.
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Keith Nichols was born on February 13, 1945 in Ilford, Essex, UK and took his first music lessons at age five on piano and accordion. As a youth he was a child actor and an award-winning accordionist, Great Britain Junior Champion in 1960.
He turned professional after graduating from Gulldhall School of Music, touring with the Levity Lancers for seven years playing trombone, piano and tuba. From the early 70s he has performed in concert ragtime at London’s South Bank, came to the U.S. in 1976 with Richard Sudhalter’s New Paul Whiteman Orchestra, recorded three solo albums for EMI and is a frequent sideman for the label and formed the Midnite Follies Orchestra focusing on the music of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.
He has gigged and recorded with Bing Crosby, arranged for the New York Jazz Repertory Company, Dick Hyman and the Pasadena Roof Orchestra, and has worked with Harry Gold, Digby Fairweather and Claus Jacobi.
The multi-instrumentalist, arranger and award-winning accordionist in his youth continues to perform and record prolifically in the UK, America and Europe with projects based in ragtime, and lectures at the Royal Academy of Music.
James Hubert Blake was born on February 7, 1887 in Baltimore, Maryland to former slaves and was the only surviving child of eight. Blake’s musical training began when he was just four or five years old when he wandered into a music store, climbed on the bench of an organ, and started “fooling’” around. The store manager recognized his genius, told his mother and subsequently bought an organ.
At seven, he received music lessons from the Methodist church organist, by fifteen he played piano at Aggie Shelton’s Baltimore bordello and got his first big break in the music business when world champion boxer Joe Gans hired him to play the piano at Gans’ Goldfield Hotel, the first “black and tan club” in Baltimore in 1907. In 1912, Blake began playing ragtime in vaudeville with James Reese Europe’s “Society Orchestra” which accompanied Vernon and Irene Castle’s ballroom dance act. Shortly after World War I, Blake joined forces with performer Noble Sissle forming the vaudeville music duo, the “Dixie Duo” that transformed into 1921’s “Shuffle Along”, the first hit musical on Broadway written by and about African-Americans.
Throughout his career Blake made three films with Sissle for Lee DeForest’s Phonofilm Sound-On-Film, later played the Boathouse nightclub in Atlantic City, was bandleader with the USO during World War II, with his career winding down in 1946 enrolled and graduated from New York University, revived in 1950 with new interest in ragtime as artist, historian and educator, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Reagan, awarded numerous honorary doctorates and had another hit Broadway play “Eubie!” in his honor. Eubie Blake continued to play piano and record until his death on February 12, 1983 in Brooklyn, New York. He was 96.
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