JJ 02/64: In My Opinion – Roland Kirk

Sixty years ago Kirk gave articulate commentary on jazz, including the heretical opinion that Ronnie Scott was better than Tubby Hayes. First published in Jazz Journal February 1964

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Roland Kirk in England in 1963. Photo Roy Mathers/JJ Archive

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop.

So much has been written about Roland Kirk, that he needs little introduction here. He started playing saxophone with a rhythm and blues band led by Boyd Moore in Columbus, Ohio, and picked up his first ‘double’, the manzello, in a second-hand music store; about two years later he came across his stritch. At first he only featured tenor and manzello together and it was not until later that he managed to play all three instruments simultaneously. He got his first big break with Joe Segal in Chicago, but after his return from his first European tour, Kirk became big news all over America. A wonderful lively personality, Roland has a really exceptional ear, which combined with a more than usual ability to create jazz, makes him a musician of some stature. – Sinclair Traill


Hanid. Bud Freeman. London LTZ-N 15030
Now, I like the way he thinks musically. I was at a record date recently where Bud Freeman recorded with two guitars only, and he got a very big sound and fitted very well into that particular combination. I liked the changes on that tune – unusual, very attractive. I don’t think I would want myself to be influenced by that particular style he uses, but he obviously has a very open mind to music. I liked his fingering – it’s the modern way.

Of course, talking about influences, everybody must have been influenced by someone. That was what I call the Coleman Hawkins influence. Not the tone, not the production but the influence was there. It is like when somebody says something you like and can use – in fact it is there in anything you do. You are always influenced by something which has gone before. Of course, I know someone had to start somewhere and no doubt jazz had its roots in Africa. I wouldn’t say the blues came from there, they originated from anywhere there was slavery, but in jazz there are a lot of feelings they get from Africa. I suppose if I hadn’t been born in America and had never heard my first jazz there, I might have come up with a different con­ception. Might not even have played the saxophone. But who ever played jazz and didn’t sound like an American? Django Reinhardt? Well, he sounded just like an American to me –  fact, he sounds just like Alvino Ray. I don’t know what he sounded like when he started, but when I heard him he was definitely influenced by American music. Now I don’t think I shall ever hear any tenor player who will influence me enough to quit playing my three horns. Django quitted his gypsy stuff and became influenced – he didn’t therefore originate anything.

‘Ornette Coleman, he’s going to win out because he really believes in what he is doing. He doesn’t try and play like Bird or Coltrane or anybody. He’s going to win out, because he is going to create something that is original to Ornette. Now, Dolphy, he’s not original…’

Now, Ornette Coleman, he’s going to win out – he’ll win out because he really believes in what he is doing. He doesn’t try and play like Bird or Coltrane or anybody, he believes in himself. So one day, even if it is only for a minute he’s going to win out, because he is going to create something that is original to Ornette. Now, Dolphy, he’s not original, he’s only working on Ornette Coleman’s back. When Django started out he had something original, but somewhere along the line he heard some jazz which detracted him from what he could have done. He did a lot as it was, but I think he could have done much more had he adapted his own conception to jazz, and not borrowed from what he heard.

Georgia Swing. Doc Evans & His Band. Saga XIC 4008
Well, I like Dixieland alright, but not too much, for that was the kind of music I was forced to listen to at school. Every time some band came to town, this was the kind of thing they’d have, instead of something more modern, so this was what I had to listen to. That was like some old march with that tuba going. Like one of those funeral things they do in New Orleans. But I’d know at once that that band didn’t come from New Orleans, that is the Chicago sound. Nothing like the sound Jelly Roll Morton got, with that piano lead of his. That trumpet player didn’t give me nothing – it seemed as if he were laughing at the whole thing. I have never heard that number before, but it didn’t sound to me as if it should be played that way. If Jelly Roll wrote it, I am sure he wouldn’t have liked that version – that trumpet player wasn’t trying to be serious about the whole thing.

Blues For Lester. Budd Johnson & the Four Brass Giants. Riverside RLP 343
Budd was out of tune there, and had trouble with his reed. But it is a good record, the four trumpets make such a good contrast. You should have played me All My Love from that album – a lovely tune and Budd plays very well there. But that was out of tune, horns get that way sometimes, you know.

Of Don Byas: ‘I would rather listen to him than I would Charlie Parker, and I would go so far as to say if I had to make a choice as to the best saxophonist, I think I would go for Don Byas’

All The Things You Are. Don Byas Quintet. Impulse A 37
Well, to me Don Byas really has it all. He is, of course, more modern than Freeman, Chu or Budd, but I think he has it over them all, even Hawkins. I would rather listen to him than I would Charlie Parker, and I would go so far as to say if I had to make a choice as to the best saxophonist, I think I would go for Don Byas. You know, I got a record since I have been here of Don playing with Slam Stewart in 1945, and they do some rhythm changes on that which sound as if they were done today – it was that concert done at the Town Hall. Funny thing, Byas has been away from America for years and yet he is still modern and has ideas that no one else has. Of course, as far as my tastes go, I could listen to Clifford Brown before Charlie Parker. I don’t decry Parker, for I know he left such a lot behind him for musicians – so many beautiful things. Where he got his style no one knows, yet I know he was influenced by someone. Some say Buster Smith from Kansas City, yet you don’t hear much of Parker if you listen to Buster Smith, yet it is there all the time. It is the influence, not the tone or nothing, just the influence.

One reason I like Don before Parker is because he always plays perfectly in tune. Now I know Parker borrowed instruments and sometimes played on some that were not the best, so we can’t blame it on him, but he often does not play in tune – and that is one thing musicians don’t want to say. I say to Byas “That’s out of tune.” And he says “Yes man, but he’s still making it!” But I can only see it’s out of tune.

Talkin’ My Language. Chu Berry. Philips BBL 7054
He had an unusual sound, but of course he did sound a little like Hawk there. It’s funny us talking about these influences and all that, but it had to start somewhere and if it were only a march-band saxophonist or a supper-club saxophone it was a primary influence on someone. But I hope that ten years from now someone isn’t going to say I got my style from someone else. If I were to play all the Charlie Parker licks or all the Coleman Hawkins licks and if I learned them note for note, then I still hope I shouldn’t sound the way they do, for I hope I have a tonal quality of my own.

Steve Voce told me that sometimes I sound a little like Chu Berry to him, but I don’t know about that. I heard all these people when I was young, but they didn’t stick in my mind, for I didn’t know anything about jazz in those days – I didn’t know I was going to be a jazz musician. My mother she used to play Ella Fitzgerald and John Kirby.

Carlo Krahmer played me a record the other day, a John Kirby record with that clarinet player holding a note for about two choruses. It took me back to when I was about eight years old, I used to listen to that stuff, but I didn’t even know it was Buster Bailey playing that clarinet. I used to hear Chu Berry at Hamp’s, but I didn’t know who it was I was listening to. And I heard Fats Navarro and Sonny Criss, when I was about eleven. I was fascinated by Criss ’cause he played a lot of notes.

I heard a lot of people in my early days. Music was friendlier in those days. All kinds of people used to get together, I used to hear a Dixieland cat on the bandstand with a modern saxophone player and they would have a real bluesy piano player sitting in and you would hear all these different things all going on together. It all fitted, no label, just a jam session. Now these days everyone seems to think they are better than each other – like a modern tenor player will look down on a Dixieland musician, because they think they get more money playing progressive jazz.

You know, when I go into Bourbon Street, some of the cats will say “Why aren’t you down at Birdland, you play progressive don’t you?” Most of the modern musicians do go down to Birdland, but I go down to all of them; Metropole, anywhere I can learn something. And I don’t want to listen to those progressive groups all night ’cause I think I can use a little of everything I hear. Just recently I heard Max Kaminsky playing Wolverine Blues, and I liked it so much I asked him if I could get a record of him playing that. My bass player Abdul Malik he’s gone to play with Kaminsky whilst I am away – he is the most adaptable bass player, plays everything and every style, even Eastern music. Of course, I will always get to hear Bobby Hackett when I have a chance – I like his playing.

Of course, I didn’t know what Chu Berry was doing, when I first heard him. I didn’t recognise the technique, but I did like what I heard – it registered somehow. I think how I got interested in Chu Berry was because I remember my father saying “I heard that great Chu Berry, and he came to town with his saxophone in a paper bag.” And that’s the kind of thing that sticks in a child’s mind. But I did listen to the records that my father had of Chu Berry, and I thought he made a beautiful sound.

Also I remember Joe Thomas – my father was very fond of his playing and had some records of his; he thought him a great tenor player, and so I had to listen. I think it all came to me when I was about 13 or 14 (or maybe before then), but when my mother used to play all that music, I just wasn’t interested then. When I was around 6 years old or so she was buying those Goodman records and heaps of other swing records. I didn’t know, but I suppose with all those records being played something must have stuck with me.

‘Tub is influenced by Ronnie, tho’ he doesn’t play like him. And I can say that I think Ronnie Scott is the better player of the two, tho’ no one says so over here

Jumpin’ At The Woodside. Ellington-Basie. Battle Royal. Philips BBL 657
Well, I don’t like to put anyone down, but I don’t get Basie – the current Basie I mean. I used to like the band when Frank Foster and the others first got with him, Quinichette and the rest. I heard the band out on the coast when Frank first joined and he brought a lot of fresh excitement to the band, but after about 4 or 5 years they got in a rut. The last thing I liked was Little Pony, Frank was fine there.

But I don’t like to be tied down to anything myself, which is why I don’t expect I’ll ever make a whole lot of money. I don’t like to play the same kind of numbers the same way every night, in the same format, so I don’t like this band. I have a deal of respect for the guitarist Freddie Green, but I don’t like to hear that steady 4/4 all the time, it gets boring. To be frank I don’t really like that rhythm section, not flexible enough for me. I don’t like putting anyone down, and maybe I’m a bad judge, but that is how it sounds to me. Paul Gonsalves there got a fine sound and so too did Frank Foster – sounded a lot like the old Sonny Stitt. And that’s where Foster got his style from – Sonny Stitt and no other. But I do wish he would get away from that band. Paul’s influences, now they come from such a lot of places, it would be difficult to trace them. He’s a great player, with a most beautiful sound. I didn’t realise that it was Duke in there too; and I had better clear up something about this guitar thing. I like it in certain 4/4 things, ’cause I know it has a place – but not all the time.

Half A Sawbuck. Tubby Hayes Quintet – Late Spot at Scotts. Fontana 687 307 TL
Don’t want to say too much about that, but it bears out just what I have been saying. You listen to Tub and you don’t hear Ronnie Scott in his playing, yet he is definitely influenced by him – and I know that’s right! I tested that out last night, Tub is influenced by Ronnie, tho’ he doesn’t play like him. And I can say that I think Ronnie Scott is the better player of the two, tho’ no one says so over here. Again I checked out on that last night. I had thought this for a long time but didn’t want to say it until I had a chance to hear them both on the same night. Now Tubby is flexible, but he doesn’t have the projection that Ronnie has. Now a lot of people here try and tell me that Ronnie isn’t so and so, but well, I say listen; just listen! He’s a great tenor player – great, man!