Kirk was blinded soon after his birth, and was educated at Ohio State School for the Blind. He played saxophone and clarinet with a school band from the age of twelve, and by 1951 was leading his own group for dances and playing with other bands around the Ohio area. At sixteen he dreamed he was playing three instruments at once, and the next day went to a music shop and tried out all the reed instruments. He was taken to the basement to be shown "the scraps", and found two archaic saxophones which had been used in turn-of-the-century Spanish military bands, the stritch and the manzello; the first is a kind of straight alto sax, and the second looks a little like an alto, but sounds more like a soprano. Kirk took these and worked out a way of playing them simultaneously with the tenor sax, producing three-part harmonyby trick fingering. As there were often slight tuning discrepancies between the three instruments, the resulting sound could be harsh, almost with the characteristic of certain ethnic instruments, and this gave Kirk's music an added robustness. He also used sirens, whistles and other sounds to heighten the drama of his performances.
He made his first album in 1956, but it went virtually unnoticed. Then in 1960, through the help of Ramsey Lewis, he recorded for the Cadet label, and immediately caused controversy.People accused him of gimmmickry, and Kirk defended himself, saying that he did everything for a reason, and he heard sirens and things in his head when he played. He was, in fact, rooted very deeply in the whole jazz tradition, and knew all the early music, including thre work of Jelly Roll Morton (and Fats Waller) in which sirens, whistles, car horns and human voices had figured to brilliant effect. For Kirk, jazz was "black classical music", and he steeped in its wild, untamed spirit; in this he was "pure" - there were virtually no discernible influences from European classical music in his work.
In 1961 he worked with Charles Mingus for four months, playing on the album Oh Yeah and touring with him in California. His international reputation was burgeoning, and after his stint with Mingus he made his first trip to Europe, performing as soloist at the Essen jazz festival, West Germany. From 1963 he began a series of regular tours abroad with his own quartet, and played the first of several residencies at Ronnie Scott's club. For the rest of the 1960s and into the 1970s he led his group the Vibration Society in clubs, concerts and major festivals throughout the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand(from alfanet)
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