In 1971, jazz saxophonist and flutist Rahsaan Roland Kirk was booked to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He had agreed to perform his version of “My Cherie Amour,” then a recent hit by Stevie Wonder. But he shocked Sullivan and, no doubt, a large number of viewers, when, instead, he led an all-star group, including Charles Mingus on bass, Roy Haynes on drums and Archie Shepp on saxophone, through a wildly improvisational take on Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song.”
The story is told, and the entire performance is shown, in the documentary “The Case of the Three Sided Dream,” which was screened Tuesday night at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, as part of TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival, which continues through Sunday. Kirk’s widow Dorthaan Kirk — well known to New Jersey jazz fans for her work with WBGO-FM and her Dorthaan’s Place series of Sunday brunches at NJPAC’s NICO Kitchen + Bar — introduced the film, and four artists interviewed in it (trombonist Steve Turre, bassist Michael Max Fleming, cellist Akua Dixon and poet Betty Neals) joined the film’s director, Adam Kahan, in a post-screening panel discussion.
Kirk is an endlessly fascinating musician who also happened to lead a fascinating life. A native of Columbus, Ohio who lived in East Orange from 1974 until 1977 (when he died of a stroke at the age of 42), Kirk was blind from infancy, when a nurse put the wrong medicine into his eyes. He developed world-class chops on his instruments, but wasn’t content to stop there, constantly mastering new instruments, playing several saxes at the same time, or using his nose to play a flute. He resented if people thought of these techniques as gimmicks; they were just his attempt to re-create the music he heard in his dreams.
In 1975, he suffered the first of his two strokes, which left him unable to use one hand. So he relearned how to play sax, and continued making great, though somewhat more conventional, music until his death.
Appropriately, “The Case of the Three Sided Dream” is not really a conventional music documentary. It’s light on details about Kirk’s life, heavy on discussion about his musical technique, artistic philosophy and radical politics. Many long performance clips are included, which really help viewers understand what he was all about, musically. In some segments, you just hear Kirk’s voice, with animated illustrations — an arty touch that could have become corny, but seems quite appropriate, given Kirk’s open-minded approach to just about everything.
The following are the remaining events in the TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival:
Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m.: Steve & Iqua Colson: 40 Years in the Moment, at Newark Museum. Free.
Nov. 13, 8 p.m.: Jazz and Soul: Fantasia, Philip Bailey, José James, Jazzmeia Horn and The Christian McBride Big Band, at NJPAC’s Prudential Hall.
Nov. 14, 7 p.m.: All-State Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Choir at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater.
Nov. 14 ,8 p.m.: Chris Botti at NJPAC’s Prudential Hall.
Nov. 15, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.: NJPAC Day of Swing at NJPAC Center for Arts Education. Jazz exploration and learning for children and families. Free.
Nov. 15, 2 p.m.: “Jazz City: Newark’s Jazz Legacy” panel discussion, at Rutgers-Newark’s Dana Library, 185 University Ave. Free.
Nov. 15: 5 and 8 p.m.: Michael Franks with Raul Midón, at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater.
Nov. 16, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.: Vanessa Rubin Trio at Dorthaan’s Place buffet brunch at NJPAC’s NICO Kitchen + Bar.
Nov. 16, 3 p.m.: Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater.
Nov. 22, 8 p.m.: All Strings Attached: Béla Fleck, Christian McBride and the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater.
Nov. 30, 8 p.m.: Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette at NJPAC’s Prudential Hall.
For more information, visit NJPAC.org/moodyjazz. For more information about “The Case of the Three Sided Dream,” click here.
Here is the film’s trailer: