One of the most remarkable passages in Adam Kahan's new documentary on Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1935-1977) concerns the gloriously idiosyncratic jazz musician's campaign to get more jazz, or "Black classical music" as he called it, on national TV. Kirk and his friends, collectively known as the Jazz & People's Movement, would secure tickets for the top talk shows, circa 1970 — Dick Cavett, Hugh Downs, Merv Griffin. Then, a little after the monologue, they'd stand up, hoist placards denouncing the small-mindedness of TV execs, make a racket using smuggled-in noisemakers and generally interrupt the show. None of that made it to the airwaves, of course, but it did start a dialogue, and eventually, in 1971, The Ed Sullivan Show invited Kirk to perform. I won't spoil Kahan's doc by continuing the story, but suffice to say that compromise wasn't an option for the blind, Columbus, Ohio-born multi-instrumentalist, who could play three saxophone-like instruments at once, had mastered circular breathing and was idolized by Jimi Hendrix (to pick out just a few biographical traits). Kahan, who hopes to make a narrative feature about Kirk if he can arrange the funding (he suggested Dave Chapelle as the lead during SXSW), began working on The Case of the Three Sided Dream, which takes its title from one of Kirk's final records, in 1999.
NUVO: When did you first hear Rahsaan Roland Kirk?
Adam Kahan: I knew I wanted to get into jazz, but I didn't know anything about it. I was at a garage sale in San Francisco in 1989. That's not when I started making the film, although sometimes it feels like it. I bought a Louis Armstrong record, an Ornette Coleman record and a Rahsaan record. I took a chance. When I first put that record on, it just totally blew me away. It was love at first listen.
NUVO: And what made you fall in love?
Kahan: What I learned making the film — and I guess I knew it sub-consciously — is that his music is super-emotional. It all comes from the gut or heart. It's all about feeling and blues. He can do technically dextrous things, but when you boil it down, it's all from the soul. At the end of his life, he had a stroke and had to play with one hand. He recorded some stuff at that time — and that's my favorite. When he was robbed of his physical prowess, it distilled it even more, to the point that it's all feeling. At the core he's really a blues musician. Everything he did came from the blues, I think, and that's a good place to be coming from.
NUVO: How'd your relationship with Rahsaan, if you will, change as you made this film? He was certainly endearing and brilliant, but he had a bullheaded side.
Kahan: I grew to appreciate him even more. Bullheaded is a good term, frankly. He was a Leo, and a very classic kind of Leo. He knew what he wanted from his band — and he got it. I also grew to appreciate the people in his life. In making the film, one thing I quickly understood was that everyone who knew him loved him. Some bandleaders are known as being tyrants or womanizers or assholes. And some are known to be good guys. But Rahsaan as a bandleader was revered and loved. And he changed lives. He was transcendent, not only in his playing, but in the lives he changed. Joel Dorn [a legendary record exec who signed Kirk toward the end of Kirk's career] used to say about the people in Rahsaan's world that "they're a box of broken cookies, man." He said that lovingly. They're all lovable kinds of kooks. It's like that aunt you love. She wears that crazy hat wherever you go and people stare. But you wouldn't want her any other way.
NUVO: Rahsaan's final concert was in Bloomington. Any stories about his final days that you left out of the film?
Kahan: He played literally until the day he died. A student from IU was driving him to the gig he had the next day in Chicago when he had another stroke and died in the car. That's in the film. Dorathaan always says, 'I wonder who that student was driving him,' because it was tough for him. The minute I turned off the camera when I was interviewing Dorathaan and Steve Turre — who were both there when he died, as well as the night before he died when he played in Bloomington — they started telling me more stories, the real gritty stuff. They didn't want people to feel they were not grounded in reality, but both of them did have supernatural stories about Rahsaan the night before, about weird energy. They were supposed to go to Chicago the next day, and Dorthaan said, 'Yeah, I've got to get the tickets ready. I've got to call the airport.' And he said, 'Well, we may not make it to Chicago.' And she takes that, in hindsight, as him saying that he knew he was going out. They both kind of feel that he knew what was coming down. In the film, Steve talks about this concert where they're playing a concert and Rahsaan's energy kind of envelopes his energy. All the people in the Rahsaan world feel that he has this mystical energy that's still giving, still out there.