Kirk was born with sight, but became blind at the age of two. He started playing the bugle and trumpet, then learned the clarinet and C-melody sax. Kirk began playing tenor sax professionally in R&B bands at the age of 15. While a teenager, he discovered the "manzello" and "stritch" -- the former, a modified version of the saxello, which was itself a slightly curved variant of the B flat soprano sax; the latter, a modified straight E flat alto. To these and other instruments, Kirk began making his own improvements. He reshaped all three of his saxes so that they could be played simultaneously; he'd play tenor with his left hand, finger the manzello with his right, and sound a drone on the stritch, for instance. Kirk's self-invented technique was in evidence from his first recording, a 1956 R&B record called Triple Threat. By 1960 he had begun to incorporate a siren whistle into his solos, and by '63 he had mastered circular breathing, a technique that enabled him to play without pause for breath.
In his early 20s, Kirk worked in Louisville before moving to Chicago in 1960. That year he made his second album, Introducing Roland Kirk, which featured saxophonist/trumpeter Ira Sullivan
. In 1961, Kirk toured Germany and spent three months with Charles Mingus
. From that point onward, Kirk mostly led his own group, the Vibration Society
, recording prolifically with a range of sidemen. In the early '70s, Kirk became something of an activist; he led the "Jazz and People's Movement," a group devoted to opening up new opportunities for jazz musicians. The group adopted the tactic of interrupting tapings and broadcasts of television and radio programs in protest of the small number of African-American musicians employed by the networks and recording studios. In the course of his career, Kirk brought many hitherto unused instruments to jazz. In addition to the saxes, Kirk played the nose whistle, the piccolo, and the harmonica; instruments of his own design included the "trumpophone" (a trumpet with a soprano sax mouthpiece), and the "slidesophone" (a small trombone or slide trumpet, also with a sax mouthpiece). Kirk suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1975, losing movement on one side of his body, but his homemade saxophone technique allowed him to continue to play; beginning in 1976 and lasting until his death a year later, Kirk played one-handed. ~ Chris Kelsey, Rovi