THE CASE OF THE THREE-SIDED DREAM: THE GUY IS HEAVY
“When I die,” said Rahsaan Roland Kirk, born somebody else but transformed into himself by will and brilliant dreams, “I want them to play ‘The Black and Crazy Blues.’ I want to be cremated, put in a bag of pot—and I want beautiful people to smoke me and hope they got something out of it.” Years before, when he could still see and before he’d fully grown into a scarce weird weed, Kirk was Ronald Theodore Kirk of Columbus, Ohio. Later, made accidentally sightless by the bungling doctors of the waking world, he was Roland Kirk, changing his name at a dream’s command. Another, still later dream called to him as ‘Rahsaan, Rahsaan,’ and, naturally, Rahsaan responded. Dreams told Kirk to make noise—to be noise, and to be noisy—and to create sounds the conscious world hadn’t thought up yet. From a blind kid making instruments out of a garden hose to a bandleader playing three saxophones at once, Rahsaan (no Mr. Kirk, thanks) played a kind of jazz that called on the entire history of black music. He called it “black classical,” and when white America refused to put it on TV, he simply showed up in its studio audiences and made noise anyway. Filmmaker Adam Kahan’s documentary, The Case of the Three-Sided Dream, is a big beautiful bag of pot devoted to Rahsaan’s singular spirit. The film delivers noise, joy, anger, and poetry — plus the great man’s famous on-stage wit set to exuberant animation. He wanted to come back not as somebody new, but to be reincarnated as sound itself, and Kahan obeys, offering up a collision of cartoon notes and bright imaginings, all high on heavy sound. The Case of the Three-Sided Dream premieres on the west coast as part of the Don’t Knock The Rock festival at Cinefamily. This interview by Rin Kelly.
How has Rahsaan Roland Kirk changed you? People who knew him would say he’d just grab your spirit and change you.
Adam Kahan (director): People say that? That doesn’t surprise me by any stretch. That sounds accurate. And that’s what’s exciting. A lot of people don’t know him, and when they discover him … I’ve screened this for jazz and non-jazz people and the people who aren’t into jazz when they see him are like HOLY SHIT. They love him and are like, ‘Why don’t we know this guy?’ How it changed me? He was driven, he was driven. As his producer Joel Dorn said, he was about knocking down obstacles, and if there weren’t enough obstacles, he’d create some to knock ’em down and stay in fighting trim. He’s an inspiration … as a role model, sort of? Certainly he didn’t do what Gandhi or Martin Luther King did, but as someone who had a mission in life and his mission was exploring sound and innovating … but he was really into traditional jazz, too. He was about bringing traditional jazz to the public and taking it forward. He had a vision, he followed it, he was uncompromising—in that, he was such an inspiring character. And all the obstacles … he was made blind at age 2. He had a lot to say about people with disabilities and how they’re treated, and he started a political movement … he suffered a stroke at the end of his life and kept playing half-paralyzed til the day he died. It’s a heavy burden, frankly. This film needed to do him justice cuz the guy is heavy.
‘Heavy’ is something I hear about him a lot—his widow said he had a heavy spirit, he was heavy and it changed people.
There’s a quote I love to quote and it’s not meant to be derogatory. And I hate to go to Joel Dorn all the time, but Joel Dorn would say, ‘All the people in Rahsaan’s life, it’s like a box of broken cookies.’ They were all wacky, man. But in a good way. And all those wacky people, all those great human beings—we’re all wacky, I don’t wanna get anyone’s feathers rustled! But they say the same thing—they’d feel Rahsaan now, like he’s watching, he’s here. The night before he died, his trombonist and his third wife, they’ll say weird shit happened. Stuff was moving on its own, there were messages they received that something was going on. And Rahsaan has an album called I Talk With the Spirits—a heavy spiritual thing for sure. I hate to keep harping on that word ‘heavy,’ but he did that album The Return of the 5,000 lb. Man—Joel Dorn told me, ‘If a 5,000 pound man was coming to your town, wouldn’t you wanna go see him?’ And that leads to how he was a curiosity in a lot of ways, and that worked against him. People didn’t know what to make of him. They’d treat him as a circus act and that pissed him off. He was a virtuoso. He could have been a flute or tenor virtuoso, but he needed to explore and he had a lot to say and he could get music out of anything. I wouldn’t say he’s overlooked, cuz he’s revered in jazz, but he certainly got dismissed in some circles as a gimmick. And all that is why more people don’t know him now.
You’d think people who venerate like Beefheart, people in the rock world—
He played with Zappa, Hendrix loved him, certainly Beefheart—he does cross over slightly, and he does cross into hip-hop a little. He was sampled by the Beastie Boys, and Quasimoto references him.
And his poetry—if you’re into Mark E. Smith’s lyrics, you should be listening to Rahsaan. ‘Clickety-clack, I want my spirit back.’ That’s one of my favorites from him.
Funny you mention that! That was in an earlier cut of the film and it didn’t make it in. There’s so many poetic crazy things I wanted to include that I couldn’t. And so many great things he said I wanted to include.
What’s your favorite example of his extemporaneous brilliance?
Betty Neil’s quote from the opening, where she says that Rahsaan says anything can be music—‘from the hum of the sun to things happening down here on earth.’ And that gets into the spiritual, into the cosmos, and that was certainly him. Literally, that was what he thought: anything can be music. And he’d get music out of anything.
He played 40 instruments—does that include the garden hose? It’s like he emerged from his teens fully realized. His childhood friends say he was doing this stuff as a kid.
He started experimenting at a very young age. He cut out a section of garden hose and played it as a trumpet. There’s so many crazy anecdotes. There’s a story of him playing with Hendrix, and a story I thoroughly believe, where Hendrix showed up at a gig of Rahsaan’s in London and they jammed, and it was ‘so hot it melted the tape recorder,’ as his pianist said. Those tapes may be out there somewhere. Maybe buried with Joel Dorn? And then there’s the stories of him driving a car—but he’s blind.
And he toured with Jay Leno?
That’s one I don’t know! But I did know Leno was into him.
Jay Leno told the story on his show! Leno was the opening act.
Rahsaan had great crossover! He was just so multidimensional. That’s why he’d slip through the cracks. ‘Miles Davis, cool jazz trumpet, I get it.’ With Rahsaan, it’s like … whoa!
The animation is great—it shows things in the film you couldn’t do otherwise. You have to use animation to travel into his imagination.
I had audio-only stuff he’d said on CDs or at performances, and I wanted that in the film, but what do you show? It’s a visual medium. And I didn’t wanna do the slow pan into a photo, like the Ken Burns classic. Finally I hooked up with an animator who is just a great guy. He got it. It clicked. The animation is in the style of the film, very 60s and 70s—someone mentioned The Electric Company. It does have that retro 70s TV feel. I feel it’s a good synergistic fit for the rest of the film. And my using film leader, super-8 home movies … that places you visually in the 60s and 70s, which is where his main career lies.
What about the footage that looks like home movies? Is that authentic? Like with everyone sitting together in the dark?
Rahsaan’s wife, Dorthaan, gave me that footage. She was so kind to pass that on to me. She hadn’t seen any of that in years, and it’s beautiful. I wanted to do an intimate film. You’ll notice there are no critics, no celebrities—if celebrities woulda said yes, I’d have put them in! But it’s only people who knew him, family and friends and people who played with him, and to have the home movies integrated just adds to the intimacy. When I looked at that footage … just to see them on the road, with the feel and the ambiance and the atmosphere. They’re having a great time. Rahsaan had a lot of axes to grind and he was pissed off at a lot of stuff, but he also loved to laugh, loved to play tricks on people. He was a great guy to be with! He was a band leader who wasn’t feared or tyrannical—well, he mighta been feared, but his fellow musicians just loved him and loved playing with him and being with him.
What was the movement he started to disrupt TV shows and get jazz on the air?
He started something called the Jazz and People’s Movement, and their goal was to get more exposure for jazz and African-American music, arguably one of the greatest legacies this country has to offer. Rahsaan termed jazz ‘black classical music.’ He thought it should be revered like European classical music. They wanted more exposure and the main target was TV. So they decided to stage civil disobedience-style disruptions and sit-ins, based on what was happening in the civil rights movement as far as actions. They had a manifesto, they’d contact the press, but the bulk of it was buying tickets to live tapings of shows and smuggling in noisemakers and pocket trumpets, and when the show started to tape, on a cue from Rahsaan—the blind guy leading them—they’d stand up and make as much noise as they could so the show couldn’t tape. So the show had to stop, lots of money would be lost, but it led to dialogue: ‘Why are these people here? What do they want?’ And that led to not only musical exposure, but talk shows. And it did get a lot more exposure for Rahsaan and jazz. There were also jealousies, like, ‘Oh, it’s just Rahsaan furthering his agenda.’ And it was, but his agenda wasn’t Rahsaan. It was getting the music out there. That’s evidenced in the Ed Sullivan show performance. He coulda gone with his own band, but he brought people from all across jazz. Mingus, Archie Shepp, Roy Haynes—he really was about getting the music out there. That crazy thing—I remind people that that movement was doing not only everything they could to get more exposure on TV and making noise and stopping taping, but on top of it he was blind! That’s kind of tied to him tearing down obstacles. He knocked down the obstacle of getting on TV and appeared on Ed Sullivan, and they wanted a nice, cool soul jazz number, really accessible—so what’d he do? Put up another obstacle to draw people in, and they played this really out-there version of a Mingus song. For jazz, it woulda been fine, but if your Ed Sullivan audience sees him come on and play that and he has this in-your-face attitude … a lot of people frankly felt he blew that opportunity. He could have drawn a lot of people in if he played the Stevie Wonder song they wanted, but that’s not what he wanted to do. And this was what he wanted to do. I’m sure he had his reasons.
What was it he said just as they began to play?
‘True black music will be heard tonight.’ And he was right.
He talked about dreams a lot. Did he ever describe what his dreams were actually like?
Things came to him in dreams a lot, hence the title of the film. He heard someone call him Rahsaan in a dream, which is how he came up with the name. He experienced in a dream playing multiple saxophones at the same time, and very specific saxophones. He played a tenor, but also these hybrid saxophones. He said he found those in a junk shop in Ohio—‘These were the instruments seen in my dream, and they led me to this junk shop.’ In the late 60s and 70s there was a Nation of Islam movement in the States, so journalists would always ask, ‘Are you Muslim? What’s your religion?’ They’d think Rahsaan was a Muslim name. And he’d say, ‘No, man—I’m from the religion of dreams.’ And that would just shut them up.
And he hated the word ‘blind.’ He’d say he just saw differently—‘The love we are all taught is the love in magazines, and I’m fortunate I didn’t have to look at magazines.’
In interviews he’d say, ‘I’m just a man who doesn’t see too well.’ Clearly he had vision beyond many, in the figurative term. He preferred the term ‘sightless,’ if he had to pinpoint and talk directly about seeing.
Did he ever connect his sightlessness to his relationship to sound?
Everyone around him does. I’ve never heard him say that cuz he was blind, he had greater sonic capacity. Maybe he felt that? But he doesn’t really address it. His affinity for sound is so natural. It just seems like something he had from the get-go. The why … he doesn’t ever really address. But a lot of people suggest that being blind gave him added dimensions.
I don’t mean that in an easy way—just that he had this entire world to work with that other people ignore. There was such an incredible complexity to the way he understood sound. Like one of his lifelong friends first met him on the bus, and he noticed him in the back harmonizing with the bus on tenor sax.
Steve Turre, a great trombonist who played with him and started when he was 18, talks about sitting in a dark room with Rahsaan—I don’t know if this is a spoiler? But he sits in the dark room and Rahsaan is making him aware of sounds he’d otherwise have never heard.
And he’d sometimes wear a radio around his neck on stage, and flip through the channels and improvise—what other instruments did he use that no one else did?
He was really into music boxes. He’d use them a lot on stage and had a pile at home. And the radio, whistles, bells, a gong. A lot of this threw people off. ‘I came to hear a jazz musician!’ He had a core of lunatics—Joel Dorn said lovingly—that totally got and dug what he did and were like, ‘Yes!’ But he’d do some pretty surprising things on stage with instruments, like flutes and homemade things, lots of masking tape, a trumpet mouthpiece in a saxophone … crazy stuff. He had a good flute arsenal, African instruments. I know he played kalimba.
And the chair—he’d end shows by destroying a chair. And no one knows why. He never explained why that was so important.
Rahsaan liked you to decode things. He didn’t always give the easy answer. With the chair smashing, he didn’t give anyone any answers! People surmised this or that—the Vietnam War? But he was a great showman, too. And unfortunately he was sometimes dismissed as a showman, and his virtuosic musicianship overlooked. But he could work a room!
His wife said he knew he was misunderstood, so he’d keep on doing it—it doesn’t make a difference. Like people are never gonna get you anyway!
Joel Dorn said that’d strengthen his resolve. If people didn’t get that he played three saxophones, he’d add a whistle! Put bells on his knees! Use a gong! The more someone didn’t get it, the more he’d go further.
He makes you want to model yourself after him—to go ahead and do what you want cuz no one is gonna get you anyway!
He was like a lot of artistic people. He couldn’t do otherwise. This is how he felt, this was his vision and he followed it and was honest with himself. He wasn’t trying to perpetuate any certain thing or put on airs. What he felt he had to do, he did it.
Was he one of the most political people on the jazz stage then? He’d stand up during performances and start talking.
He did have a lot of anger. I wouldn’t necessarily portray him as ‘angry,’ but he had axes to grind and I did say in the film … some guys just got up and played, and that’s no fault of theirs! They’re musicians! But a big part of Rahsaan’s act was talking. And it could be super humoristic—he was funny as shit! He’d joke with you. But if there was an issue, like Governor Faubus during civil rights or even Nixon … if he had something on his mind, it was gonna come out! He wasn’t shy and he’d talk. And he certainly was exceptional for that. Sometimes he’d keep talking. One musician told me the audience would be like, ‘OK, fine, but I came here to hear music!’ And you didn’t wanna do that! He’d call you out! ‘You and me, right now—let’s go outside!’ Or it’d piss him off and he’d just talk more! But he loved humor, he could get funny as shit on stage.
You realize you’re so penned in by your own experiences, you need people to knock you in the head and make you look at things differently!
That’s what I hope draws people to him—he helps you look at the world differently.
THE CASE OF THE THREE-SIDED DREAM ON THURS., JULY 24, AS PART OF THE DON’T KNOCK THE ROCK FESTIVAL AT CINEFAMILY, 643 N. FAIRFAX AVE., LOS ANGELES. 7:30 PM / $12 OR FREE FOR MEMBERS / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! MORE INFO ON ADAM KAHAN AND THE CASE OF THE THREE-SIDED DREAM AT RAHSAANFILM.COM.