Blind for most of his life and slowed by a stroke in his later years, jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk still managed to make his mark in a big way before his death in 1977. He was the very definition of cutting-edge, playing a staggering number of different instruments — sometimes several at once — and leaving behind a unique legacy in the jazz world.
Born as Ronald Theodore Kirk in Columbus, Ohio, he was a professional musician by his mid-teens, already skilled at trumpet, clarinet, and sax. He moved around a lot, spending much of the 1950s in Louisville and eventually Chicago, gaining experience and also experimenting with instrumentation. At one time or another he would add flute and other wind instruments, including obscure ones like the manzello and the stritch.
As his fame grew he became even more inventive, adding everything from harmonica to English horn to nose flute. Audience members were at first put off by the perception of gimmickry, but soon realized his talent and became fans. He often held — and played — several instruments at once, even mastering circular breathing to allow for more continuous play and amazingly complex passages.
Through the 1960s and early 1970s, Kirk often led his own group and also worked with with stars like Charles Mingus. Along with the musical side of his life he also became an outspoken social critic, and was active in many causes, including a movement to bring opportunities to new musicians. When his stroke occurred in 1975, he taught himself to play one-handed and continued to perform until his death two years later.