Kirk was born Ronald Theodore Kirk in Columbus, Ohio, but felt compelled by a dream to transpose two letters in his first name to make Roland. He became blind at an early age as a result of poor medical treatment. In 1970, Kirk added "Rahsaan" to his name after hearing it in a dream.
Kirk played and collected a number of musical instruments, mainly various saxophones, clarinets and flutes. His main instruments were tenor saxophone and two obscure saxophones: the stritch (a straight alto sax lacking the instrument's characteristic upturned bell) and a manzello (a modified saxello soprano sax, with a larger, upturned bell). Kirk modified these instruments himself to accommodate his simultaneous playing technique.
He typically appeared on stage with all three horns hanging around his neck, as well as a variety of other instruments, including flutes and whistles, and often kept a gong within reach. Kirk also played clarinet, harmonica, English horn, and recorders, and was a competent trumpeter. He often had unique approaches, using a saxophone mouthpiece on a trumpet or playing nose flute. He additionally used many non-musical devices, such as alarm clocks, sirens, or a section of common garden hose (dubbed "the black mystery pipes"). His studio recordings also used tape-manipulated musique concrète, and primitive electronic sounds (before such things became commonplace).
Kirk was also a major exponent and practitioner of circular breathing. Using this technique, Kirk was not only able to sustain a single note for virtually any length of time; he could also play sixteenth-note runs of almost unlimited length, and at high speeds. His circular breathing ability enabled him to record "Concerto For Saxophone" on the Prepare Thyself to Deal With a Miracle LP in one continuous take of about 20 minutes' playing with no discernible "break" for inhaling. His long-time producer at Atlantic Jazz, Joel Dorn, believed he should have received credit in The Guinness Book of World Records for such feats (he was capable of playing continuously "without taking a breath" for far longer than exhibited on that LP), but this never happened.
(thanks to Francis Baudevin)