Even Hep Cats Get The Blues

Roland Kirk bright moments

My parents met at a dance for foreign students in Boston. (He was Scottish; she was Dutch.) My mother, who listened almost exclusively to classical music and played the cello, would later confess that, after watching my father perform his rousing Fats Waller impression she wondered if he might be mad. (Only later would she realize the complete accuracy of this hypothesis.)

My father’s love for jazz can be traced back to his childhood in Glasgow where he saved ha’pennies in order to afford 78rpm recordings by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other American greats. The music seemed wildly exotic and wonderful to him; moving to the States post-war increased his devotion.

As a child I was immersed in the exquisite creations of Satchmo, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and others long before The British Invasion. (Every so often my father would regale us with his impression of Coleman Hawkins playing “Body & Soul”. This hilarious homage was delivered using only his lips and included elaborate mugging.)

High school and college were devoted to rock; Hendrix had propelled it to the stars. But by the time I got to graduate school Hendrix was dead and rock was very much in decline. I returned to jazz and found that, while rock does one thing very well, jazz is a complete art form that encompasses all elements of the human spirit. Jazz is not so much a musical style as it is a world.

One of my absolute favorite players was a human three-ring circus named Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk was blind and famous for playing as many as three saxophones simultaneously. But this only scratches the surface. He would play the flute and talk at the same time, launch into “raps” that ranged from bawdy to political. Kirk was not an easy man, but the very definition of a creative genius who could hold his own with John Coltrane, Charlie Parker – anyone!

I saw Kirk perform three times, once at Carnegie Hall, once in a horrid meeting room in Chicago, and once in a tiny Dayton jazz club called Gilly’s. I went there alone and got a seat all the way up front. To my amazement, Kirk came into the room from the back and started working the crowd. He was dressed in an orange jumpsuit covered with hooks and zippers and looked like a human Christmas tree except that instead of ornaments there were saxophones, flutes, whistles, miscellaneous percussion instruments, etc.

He moved with confidence a sighted person wouldn’t have had, Kirk knew every stick of furniture in that room, and he sensed every person. At last he arrived at the front of the room, by the stage, next to my table.

“How you doin’ man?” He faced me and seemed to know I was alone.
“Great,” I answered too eagerly, “I’m really happy about being here.”
“I ain’t.”
“What do you mean?” This confession did not conform to my expectation of the evening. I had been counting the days; some idiot part of me believed that Kirk had also been looking forward to it.
“I ain’t feeling it, man. It’s Sunday night, I’d rather be at home watching Mary Tyler Moore.”
“Why would you be doing that when you could be here turning these folks on to your fabulous music?”
“Because, man, just because. I’d rather be at home watching Mary Tyler Moore.”

It wasn’t the idea of a blind man watching TV. It wasn’t the idea of the baddest, hippest jazz musician on the scene watching the squarest, whitest, most apple pie show on TV. It was the idea that even the most incendiary genius could be vulnerable and flat like the rest of us.

He did two sets; being a professional, they were absolutely amazing. But even when he dug so deeply into “If I Loved You” that I felt sure the notes had been stored in the basement next to the cases of beer, it was impossible not to picture Mary in Lou’s office, crying – and Rahsaan saying, “Love is all around, no need to fake it.”

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Alistair McHarg

Alistair McHarg was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, moved immediately to Edinburgh, and three years later moved to Amsterdam. At 6 he settled in Philadelphia and for 16 years was confused by Quaker education; Germanton Friends School and Haverford College. A Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Louisville nudged him even closer to unemployability.

Convinced at an early age that fate had chosen writing as his calling, Alistair followed a characteristically slow and circuitous path. He has found work as deck hand on a Norwegian tramp freighter touring South America, Bureau of Land Management Emergency Fire Fighter in Alaska, guide at a Canadian wilderness survival camp, truck driver crisscrossing Colorado’s continental divide, and inner city cabbie.

Alistair has been arranging words on paper for a living since 1983.