Prana, Kratu, Jazz,
(the life and will of Rashaan Roland Kirk)

By whom yoked moves the first life-breath forward on its path? By whom impelled is this word that men speak? What god set eye and ear to their workings?  

- Kena Upanishad


Before the senses hear or see, before the creative power of the word discloses the world to mankind, there exists the force of the life breath “prana”. 


The pranic energy supports not only the operations of our physical life, but also of the mind in the living body. Therefore by the control of pranic energy it is not only possible to control our physical and vital functioning’s and transcend their ordinary operation, but also to transcend the workings of the mind to transcend its ordinary operations.


Then there is the life force, the Prana that works in our vital being and nervous system. The Upanishad speaks of it as the first life breath, elsewhere in the sacred writings it is spoken of as the chief breath… that which carries in it the word, the creative expression.


From Sri Aurobindo's commentary on the Kena Upanishad

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The Kena Upanishad begins its  inquiry into the true nature of Prana, in contrast the Isha Upanishad ends by considering the true nature of Will.....


The breath of things is an immortal life, but of this body ashes are the end. Om O Will, remember that which was done remember!


- Isha Upanishad


 The Life-Principle in us survives. It is the immortal breath…. At first sight it may appear that birth and death are attributes of Life, but it is not really so birth and death are processes of matter of the body…Life forms body it is not formed by it. It is the thread upon which the continuity of our successive bodily lives are arranged, precisely because it is immortal, it associates itself with the perishable body and carries forth the mental being, the Purusha in the mind on his journey.


 Life is the condition from which the Will and the Light emerge. Will is “Kratu” the effective power behind the act. It is the nature of consciousness, it is the energy of consciousness, and although present in all forms of consciousness, conscious, subconscious, superconscious, vital physical, or mental, yet comes into its kingdom only when it emerges in mind. It uses the mental faculty of memory to link together and direct consciously the activities towards the goal of the individual.


 From Sri Aurobindo's commentary on the Isha Upanishad

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The passages and commentaries just quoted from the Kena and Isha Upanishad specify that Prana - the life breath or principle- proceeds the formation of sensory experience in the individual giving birth to the will. The will is then raised by the aspiring individual into the mental realm, where it is referred to as “Kratu” the raw energy of consciousness,. This raw energy of consciousness then uses the faculty of memory to link together the activities of the individual to manifest a unique personality. At a more advanced stage of development it then helps the individual, to link their successive births one with another, on an immortal passage. This is for the individual the culmination of it’s manifestation, the transcendence of its mis-identification with the “false ego sense” and the birth of  the “real thing”.

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“This man is Jazz! He is the real thing!”

Charles Mingus on Rashaan Roland Kirk


 Stopping just short of immortality - although his more than sixty recordings will be with us for a long time - and entering the very fragile realm of mortality with its acute statute of  limitations I would like to illustrate the process described above in both Isha and Kena Upanishads. As an illustration of the formulation of “Prana” into “Kratu” the “will” that sparks the self-becoming of a unique individual, I will use the biography of jazz virtuoso Rashaan Roland Kirk as a road map.


 Roland Kirk was born to an Afro-American family in Columbus Ohio on 7 Aug, 1936. Shortly after his birth Kirk was the victim of a hospital accident, in which according to him “ a nurse put too much medicine in my eyes” and he subsequently lost his sight. As a result from a very early age he came to experience the world not as he saw it, but rather as he heard it, through auditory sensation. Because his ears provided his primary sensory contact with the world he developed an ability to tune into those subtle sound vibrations in the environment that remain below the conscious threshold of those of us who primarily use our eyes for our worlding experience.


Unable to use his eyes as a child Kirk also drew closer to his breathe. He took to playing music producing sound by breathing or blowing into whatever “instrument” was available to him. At six he tried to get sound out of a water hose, at nine a toy bugle, at age twelve he was already playing clarinet and saxophone in his school band and by age fifteen he was a professional musician already leading his own dance band and touring about the state of Ohio


Unable to see Kirk's channeled creative imagination through breath, vibration, sound in a self-formulation of Prana that would transform itself into the will of an individual aspiring to perfect his art. The Upanishads speaks of it as the first life breath, elsewhere in the sacred writings it is spoken of as the chief breath… that which carries in it the word, the creative expression.(Kena)


 As a boy Kirk was introduced to the music of the Black Gospel Choir from which he learned the spirituals which are at the very heart of the African American music tradition. Over time he became very familiar with the entire Jazz repertoire stretching back to the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller. From these roots he followed the mutations of jazz through swing, bebop, cool into the uncharted territories of free jazz. In some tunes he eschews traditional instrumentation using sirens, horns and whistles, that all have their origin in early jazz and African music. Kirk saw jazz as black classical music championing its African roots which seethes with the raw energy of a life force aspiring to become conscious; Prana into Kratu.


Having been deprived of sight early on Kirk listened closely to the world. But it was not only the outside world that concerned him, he also heard inner voices and saw inner visions that would inspire him to explore ranges of consciousness beyond the constraints to its normal waking state. Particularly, Kirk paid rapt attention to his dreams.


At the age of 16 he had a dream; in the dream he was playing several instruments at once. This was not an easy feat considering that they were all saxophones! When he awoke he promptly went down to a local music store/ pawn shop, where he was taken down into the basement. There he found two old saxophones, left over from the turn of the century Spanish army.  They were both unusual instruments one he called the stritch ( a derivative of the straight alto saxophone) and the other a manzello ( a  type of soprano saxophone which looks like an alto saxophone) He immediately started practicing a breathing technique taught to him in his dream and before long on one breath he could play three saxophones at one time. He referred to these three instruments as his triple threat, the tenor, the stritch, and the manzello.


The breathing technique Kirk learned from his dream was one of circular breathing, which enabled him to hold a note for minutes of the time.  Indeed, the control of breath lends his playing a drone like supernatural quality.  Kirk was reported to have played a note for 2 hours and 47 minutes non-stop!


Later he would learn to play separate melodies on all three instruments at once in three part counter punctual harmony. The sound however, was often harsh since it was hard to tune all three instruments exactly together, and many times the overlapping of two or three melodies could be heard with Kirk’s voice leading the charge of the improvisation. Kirk also played the flute and sometimes would grasp it rhythmically to play through his nose.


 Kirk was chided early on by jazz critics for his sensationalist style. Kirk’s response to the criticism however, was as genuine as his music, he replied: “I play what I hear and all the sounds I play I hear in my head.” But even the critics did not doubt Kirk’s genius. In addition to his triple threat he played well over 40 instruments including harmonica, and piano.


In Kirk's music one recognizes an intellectually refined vital sensibility reminiscent of the finest bebop players as well as an inspirational source that he shared with John Coltrane, yet his music was also filled with an enormous sense of whimsy, humor and joy.   


In 1963 jazz great bassist/composer Charles Mingus heard Kirk and immediately hired him for his band. During the short time they were together he learned much from Mingus’s cutting edge music projects as well as about music composition in general. Thereafter, he played with John Coltrane’s group for a short time which left a lasting spiritual impression upon Kirk.


Roland Kirk soon traded in his sideman status for that of a featured performer, touring relentlessly throughout the world for the rest of his life. He gave memorable performances at several of the biggest Jazz festival. His concerts at the Montreux jazz festival in Switzerland are some of the most cherished in the history of the venue. All in all he recorded  on approx. sixty albums, both as featured performer and as a sideman for the likes of Charles Mingus, Quincy Jones,  and Roy Haines.


 In 1970 Kirk had a dream in which he was someone other than just the Roland Kirk of his birth, thereafter he took the name Rashaan, becoming Rashaan Roland Kirk: “It (Kratu) uses the mental faculty of memory to link together and direct consciously the activities towards the goal of the individual” (Kena)


 In 1975 Kirk suffered a debilitating stroke, which left one side of his body paralyzed. This would have devastated most players due to the lost use of one hand. Kirk however, was unstoppable, forever on a march forward he taught himself a technique whereby he could play with only one hand and thus kept his grueling performing schedule up without skipping a beat.


“The pranic energy supports not only the operations of our physical life, but also of the mind in the living body. Therefore, by the control of pranic energy it is not only possible to control our physical and vital functioning’s and transcend their ordinary operation but also to transcend the workings of the mind to transcend its ordinary operations” (Kena)


 On his last recording “Boogie Woogie String Along for Real” his condition had deteriorated quite substantially. He had to have his instruments rebuilt to fit his curved distorted lips. To give an example of just how poor his condition was one could compare him to the brilliant production engineer who worked in his recording studio named Jack Shaw.  Jack was exceptionally bright and perceptive and acted as a sort of spiritual advisor to the crew, although he like Kirk had been dealt a cruel hand by life and was severely disabled.  His physical condition was so disadvantaged that comedian Lenny Bruce once described him as “ Jack the Human Pretzel “. Although his own disease was in its advanced stages when he recorded his last LP,  Jack got off his wheel chair to lend it to an exhausted Kirk to give him a brief rest between sets. By the accounts of the other musicians, his producer, and his wife he finished the recording by a sheer act of “will”.

“Life is the condition from which the Will and the Light emerge. Will is “Kratu” the effective power behind the act. It is the nature of consciousness, it is the energy of consciousness” (Kena)


Indeed Roland Kirk’s creative breath sparked by his indomitable will propelled sounds that enable a listener to tap directly into something akin to a raw creative energy thats fuses emotional intensity with imaginative acumen. The creative breath of an individual formulating itself into the mental will is described in the Isha Upanishad as “Kratu”.  In Kirk this expression of will or “Kratu” would eventually enable him to overcome blindness, prejudice, and paralysis. Here was a force field moving ever forward toward higher states of exaltation. He overcame a myriad of physical obstacles placed before him with an overwhelming sense of an individual's self-becoming, of swadharma, the organizing principle of ones being, to give us some of the most thrilling jazz improvisations ever recorded.


On his final recordings this vital sense comes through as a soul power moving behind life;  the mover behind the mover as the Kena Upanishad refers to it, the swift current of pranic energy, whistling through the reeds of its invincible instrument; “Will, transcending the power of the minds ordinary operations.  A Will always remembering what has to be done.”(Isha)


Kirk's death was as mysterious and as unique as his life.  He was performing at a small club in Bloomington Indiana, when suddenly he made an announcement to the audience that he was not going to live to “feel”  the next sunrise. The concert from then on became almost a sacred performance. Everyone in attendance that night said that they had never heard music of such unearthly beauty.  For the remainder of the concert some likened the feeling to becoming filled with the presence of the holy spirit. As one jazz critic described his music, “music to heal the sick and wake the dead”.


After the show as he had foreseen, he suffered another stroke and died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. People present said that they could feel the moment when his spirit left his body, for its final destination when the mysterious traveler departed with his duty free gifts.  The date was December 5, 1977. The very same day that twenty seven years earlier Sri Aurobindo had chosen for his samadhi.


The Life-Principle in us survives. It is the immortal breath…. At first sight it may appear that birth and death are attributes of Life, but it is not really so birth and death are processes of matter of the body…Life forms body it is not formed by it. It is the thread upon which the continuity of our successive bodily lives are arranged, precisely because it is immortal, it associates itself with the perishable body and carries forth the mental being, the Purusha in the mind on his journey” (Kena)


In Sri Aurobindo’s commentary on the Isha Upanishad we discover the source of this Prana, this will, or Kratu originates:


 “This Upanishad invokes the Will to remember the thing which has to be done, so as to contain and be conscious of becoming, so as to be a power of knowledge and self possession and not only a power of self-formulation. It will thus more approximate itself to the true will and preside over the coordination of successive lives with a conscious control. Instead of being carried forth from Life to Life in a crooked path as by the winds. It will be able to proceed more and more straight in an ordered series, linking life to life with an increasing force of knowledge and direction until it becomes fully conscious will moving with illumination on the straight path towards immortal felicity. The mental Will “Kratu” becomes what it at present only represents the Divine Will Agni.” (Isha)

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References:

(1972) The Upanishads: Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press Pondicherry

(1998) Liner Notes, A Standing Eight CD (reissue) Roland Kirk