The Rahsaan and the Mann

A Wandering Militant, I

by Tom Rossen <rossentj@interaccess.com>

Summer of '64. Or was it '63? My first time ever in New York City. One night at the Village Vanguard? Gate? - let's just say Vangate - a double bill: Herbie Mann and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

I watched with a militant eye. I sneered inwardly at the Mann as he tootled his flute through "Comin' Home Baby". So white, so cold, so fair. Ready for that long white table.

When the Rahsaan came up, tootled rings around the Mann on the flute, sang as he snorted through the nose-flute, manzelloed, stritched and tenored through tunes as different as "Night and Day" -- I revelled in his triumph. The extraordinary blind hero had blown the stodgy goateed villain off the stage.

But I was caught off base by a later me who sees things in the round, in shades of coffee and cream, not black and white.

I may still prefer Rahsaan to the Mann, but the binary opposition is gone.

I was so much older then.

Ordinary and Extra

Ordinary Man

It will be seen in days to come that there's nothing extraordinary about Rahsaan. You can see it now if you look at him from your most best perspective. He's just naturally allowing all the music in him to stream out. Playing three horns at once, breathing in a great circle, he maximizes the bandwidth. When he's playing a gig here, he's here, now. The music that flows out of him speaks of here and now, as well as where and when he may have composed/thought of it. He lets the rhyme and rhythm come through him, he relaxes, he does not choke it off, hide it, repress it.

A Straw Musician

It will be seen in days to come that everything about the "mediocre" musician is extraordinary. Having set up every possible real-time support system (a group of experienced musicians that know his music, a program, charts, etc.), he then largely absents himself from the music, from the here, from the now, and while his support system hums smoothly, he is elsewhere, perhaps in a coffee shop in Sherman Oaks enjoying a sandwich, perhaps in his agent's office discussing the upcoming South American tour, perhaps in a golf cart on a luscious green.

This is what I once imagined Herbie Mann to be. But the truth is more subtle and elusive. Imagine a musician who believes money is the only purpose of music. "Jaded", "burnt out", playing elevator music. An ideal tragic type, a lost soul. You may know musicians who come near to this ideal, but no-one is ever "perfectly lost". Certainly not Herbie Mann. No, it is only someone I imagine.

Unnatural as prose

Being here now is as natural as poetry. Prose is hard, constantly chopping off melody and rhythm that threaten to overpower the linear. Important it is for science, yes, where something new, complex, maybe counter-intuitive, has to be worked out without all the music; maybe as an endurance game - how long can you hold off the poetry? - but anywhere else, it's just depressing. And depression is not to be underrated as a means of social control. To persuade oneself that the extraordinary - prose - is the ordinary and that the ordinary - song - is fleeting, unstable, unreal - is to build a matrix for dictatorship, alienation, elevator music.

Perhaps Rahsaan Invented Jivometry?

"I think for the first time in - uh - Western history of music as far as reeds are concerned, I think this might be the first time that you will hear this kind of thing goin' on.

"It's like splittin' the mind in two parts - ya know what I mean? It's like makin' one part of your mind say "oo-bla-dee" and make the other part of your mind say "what does he mean?"

"In other words, it's two different melodies.... And if you don't hear both of them at the same time, simultaneously - that means all together in one mouth - you better go get a ear examination!

Rahsaan's introduction to a "medley" of "Sentimental Journey" and "Going Home": Track 10 of Disc 1 of Does Your House Have Lions? Rhino R2 71406.

Funny that European s are supposed to be the ones with a sense of history. Rahsaan, like all the best American musicians, knew the history of American music and instantly replayed choice chunks of it in the course of his own music. His "Sentimental Journey" is not "camp", "parody", embarrassment at something "dated". It's as alive as any other song.

He reinvented counterpoint on an instrument that was already two instruments. It seems clear from his opening rap that he is having fun, playing in every sense, not subjecting himself to the agonizing process that music students have to go through, translating dry, awkward, misleading and patronizing hundred-year old treatises on musical form into something they can feel in their playing muscles, hear in their performing ears.

A Meditation on Blindness

Listening to "Wham, Bam, Thank You M'am" (the first cut on disk 1 of "Does Your House Have Lions?") I realize how perfect a fit Rahsaan was for Charles Mingus.

Mingus had an intimate knowledge of "classical" (European) performance and composition, but rather than hand out charts, he preferred to sing lines to his musicians, to give them the feeling of the piece first and foremost.

Rahsaan couldn't read music. He learned all his music by ear. There were no "literary" habits for Mingus to break.

Rahsaan was an ordinary man. He was not blinded by written text, by the Platonic notion of a "composer's conception" of a composition that would be at best "reflected" by a "faithful" performance. He saw music, not staff lines, clefs, dotted sixteenths.

We who are trained not to show our feelings watch Stevie Wonder wave and turn his head slowly to the music and may be embarrassed, but we may also be envious. It feels good, why not do it? Because it looks - undignified. Unprofessional. Unadult.

I close my eyes when I play. To see the music more clearly.

Rahsaan didn't have to.

Live Again

Mingus and Rahsaan are gone. All we have left are photos, recordings, sheet music. I would give anything to see the two of them live again, live again. I could be part of it now in a way that I couldn't then, not reading a militant text onto a musical performance, a diatribe on black and white, a denial of race that presumes race.

I press play. I close my eyes.


Note: The Village Vanguard is the oldest jazz club in New York City. It was founded by a guy named Max Gordon back in the Depression. He wrote a fascinating book about it called Live at the Village Vanguard, first printed in 1980 and just recently reprinted in paperback by Da Capo (ISBN 0-306-80160-4). The book includes a short chapter on Rahsaan that has some juicy quotes, even if it does call the manzello, one of RRK's quasi-saxophones, a "marzella".

Last minute addendum: The May '95 issue of Downbeat reprints a wonderful interview with the Rahsaan - read it! My only regret is that it's far to short. (Coincidentally, there's an article in the same issue on the Village Vanguard and its history.)

[back]


Next RRK Page
Return to RRK Menu