How Rahsaan Roland Kirk Shook Up The Ed Sullivan Show

The jazz master (and some high-profile friends) put together perhaps the most avant-garde performance in the history of the show.

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Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Photo: David Redfern/Redferns

No one expected The Ed Sullivan Show to be controversial, but thanks to an infamous performance by jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, one of its final episodes proved a memorable spectacle.

Having run for 23 years straight, The Ed Sullivan Show was an iconic platform that drew millions of viewers across America and had been both a beacon and barometer of popular culture; crucially, it was instrumental in introducing the wider American public to pioneering home-grown musicians like Elvis Presley and international acts such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. During its 650+ episodes, it also showcased many jazz artists, especially in the 1950s, when it featured Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. In the following decade, however, jazz’s commercial descent was reflected by the show offering fewer performance opportunities for jazz acts, especially Black ones.

Watch all the latest archival videos from The Ed Sullivan Show on the program’s official YouTube channel.

By 1971, Kirk was known as a charismatic and outspoken maverick who was frustrated that jazz and its creators were ignored by the American media. The 35-year-old musician was a virtuoso whose party trick was blowing three horns simultaneously. He was also deeply passionate about jazz – or what he preferred to call “Black Classical Music” – and wanted to raise its visibility in a country that seemed oblivious to its indigenous art form’s historical and cultural importance. Inspired by the climate of protest sweeping America in the counterculture age, he and his friend Mark Davis established The Jazz and People’s Movement (J&PM), which began in 1969 initially as a regular jam session event at the Village Vanguard on Monday nights.

Using the slogans “Stop the whitewash now!” and “Hire more Black artists on TV!”, Kirk and Davis collaborated to write a manifesto that castigated the American media for its role in underwriting bigotry and discrimination; the movement’s aims, they stated, were to “enable Black artists to reach the positions of prominence that their artistry so deserves – to breathe new life into Black culture.”

Emboldened by the mainly positive response from other jazz musicians, Kirk and Davis put together a petition demanding that television shows give Black musicians greater visibility. They organized a spirited but peaceful disruption (where their followers blew whistles and held placards) of The Merv Griffin Show in August 1970. It got them on TV news across the country, but they were branded “Black militants,” which led the FBI to monitor their activities closely.

According to Kirk’s biographer, John Kruth – whose superlative 2000 book Bright Moments paints a definitive portrait of the jazz magus – the J&PM and their growing army of peaceful whistle-blowing protesters also infiltrated Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show and successfully brought organized chaos to the set of The Dick Cavett Show.

Their next target was even more prestigious: America’s most famous TV variety program, The Ed Sullivan Show. Kirk and Davis sent the show’s producers a warning letter, informing them that it was now in the J&PM’s crosshairs. Seeking to avoid controversy, Sullivan’s production team offered Kirk a performance slot on the show. The offer came with one proviso: that he perform Stevie Wonder‘s “My Cherie Amour,” which one of the show’s talent coordinators had heard Kirk play and enthused about.

Kirk agreed and assembled a band for the occasion. But it was no ordinary group. It was a nine-piece ensemble that included three jazz superstars in its ranks; bassist/composer Charles Mingus (who, like Kirk, was a vociferous political firebrand), the avant-garde tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, and the brilliant drummer Roy Haynes, who were augmented by a second bassist – Henry “Pete” Pearson – along with two trombonists (Charles McGhee and Dick Griffin), pianist Sonelius Smith and percussionists Joe Texidor and Maurice McKinley.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk "The Inflated Tears & Haitian Fight Song" on The Ed Sullivan Show

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Kirk began his performance by announcing that “True Black music will be heard tonight …” before turning and shouting “katumba!” to McKinley, who responded with a conga roll leading into the two-horn intro to Kirk’s classic tune, “The Inflated Tear.” Surprisingly, Kirk then stopped the tune in its tracks to announce the band, beginning with drummer Haynes; he then swapped his saxophone for a flute, before briefly snorting on a tiny nose flute, which elicited confused chuckles from the studio audience. Kirk then introduced Archie Shepp before indulging in a brief musical dialogue with Charles Mingus. Their brief sparring was the cue for the band to launch into an uproarious version of the bassist’s pugnacious “Haitian Fight Song,” which was rendered with a wild intensity that would certainly have startled many of Sullivan’s viewers. (It seems that Kirk had “forgotten” his agreement to play the more accessible “My Cherie Amour.”)

Haitian Fight Song (Live)

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“That was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! Let’s hear it for Ramsam (sic) Roland Kirk!,” enthused Sullivan, after the band climaxed with a deafening seismic chord, but he was barely able to conceal his shock at what he’d just seen and heard.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk was the last jazz musician to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, which ran for only weeks afterward. Some people believed that Kirk’s riotous performance had been partly responsible for the show’s demise, but the saxophonist strenuously denied that was the case: “Don’t blame me ‘cause he went off the TV, it wasn’t my fault,” he said. It almost certainly wasn’t Kirk’s fault: With the show’s host reaching his 70th birthday and TV tastes changing, CBS was pulling the plug on a number of long-running shows at that time.

The eminent jazz writer and critic Leonard Feather called Kirk’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show “a unique night in the history of jazz on the small screen,” and though it seemed a sweet victory for the J&MP, some in the jazz world were dismayed by what they had seen and heard that January night, with even Kirk’s friend and producer, Joel Dorn, viewing it as a “wasted opportunity.” Nonetheless, Kirk’s notoriety brought him further television exposure; not long after the Sullivan performance, he was given a 30-minute slot on The Today Show, where he was able to talk about the J&MP while also introducing the wider American public to lesser-known members of Count Basie’s band.

In truth, though, the fallout from his Sullivan performance had disillusioned the multi-instrumentalist, as his friend Mark Davis told John Kruth: “After The Ed Sullivan Show, Rahsaan’s heart was broken,” he revealed. By 1972, the J&MP had run out of steam, and Kirk became a lone crusader, continuing to spread the jazz message via his concerts and albums. Kirk died from a stroke in December 1977 at the age of 42, but in his final interview, reflected back on his time leading the J&MP. “I knew it was something that couldn’t last,” he explained, “but it was something to show that the musician … does more than put needles in his arm or smoke pot.” He added, with a sense of pride: “That really showed people that we cared about what we were into.”

Watch all the latest archival videos from The Ed Sullivan Show on the program’s official YouTube channel.

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