Newark’s First Lady of Jazz at 80

On the final day of Jazz Appreciation month, we celebrate a woman whose contributions to the art form in New Jersey has spanned decades through her work at jazz station WBGO, Bethany Baptist Church and NJPAC, all in Newark. But this jazz ambassador has had an impact throughout the metropolitan region. Dorthaan Kirk has just celebrated her 80th birthday. She recently sat down with Senior Correspondent David Cruz.

Cruz: I should say that you and I, up front, we know each other for a long time. We use to work together at WBGO.

Kirk: Yes, we did.

Cruz: The station that is known as Jazz88 and Ed Bradley called it “The greatest jazz station in this country.”

Kirk: And it is, yes.

Cruz: So, you’re still there. Tell me what your title is there?

Kirk: My title is manager of community relations and special events.

Cruz: So, within that title you do a lot of stuff. You are primarily a programmer, or frequently a programmer.

Kirk: Well, yes and no. Maybe not in the terms of radio programming, but I do a lot of special events in the community. For an example, the WBGO’s Children’s Concert Series that’s been going on, actually, 25 years since 1993.

Cruz: And to get in there, any adult, the price of admission is you have to bring a child.

Kirk: That is the price of admission. Otherwise, it’s free and open to the public.

Cruz: So, you’ve done a lot of stuff in this town particularly — Jazz Fridays at the Terrace Ballroom, Jazzathon which use to be a big fundraiser for the radio station. There must have been some stories at the Terrace Ballroom, a few that we probably can’t tell, but who went through the Terrace Ballroom in terms of the greats of jazz?

Kirk: That was back in the 80s and we had the likes of Frank Foster, Abdullah Ibrahim and Akaya and lots of artists of that caliber, Art Blakey, which there is a story that we certainly can’t tell on TV.

Cruz: We certainly circulated it around the radio station.

Kirk: Yes. We used, for a lack of a better term, local artists to open. It was in the 80s, it was on Fridays after work and it was great, great, great. And we did 12 Fridays in a row, yes.

Cruz: You are from Texas originally.

Kirk: I really am, and proud of it.

Cruz: But, when did you arrive in New Jersey?

Kirk: July 1974. To be exact, July 22, 1974.

Cruz: Wow, you remember the date.

Kirk: I do, because it’s a point in my life where I was making yet another transition. Rahsaan and I had lived in Philadelphia for about 18 months while we were “getting settled.” Actually, I wasn’t supposed to leave California. That’s not how my life worked out. So yeah, July 22, 1974 is a special day and I’m still there in that same house today.

Cruz: We should say Rahsaan, who is Rahsaan Roland Kirk, one of the great jazz legends, multi-instrumentalists. When you got here in Newark in 1974, that was sort of the last days of that great Newark jazz scene.

Kirk: I think so, I really do think so. However, there were still Sparky J’s, there was a club on Broad Street that was downstairs that I can’t remember so I’m not going to speculate and a couple more. But Sparky J’s was the one, and that was on William and Halsey, that were still bringing in, I guess you would say, the national known stars.

Cruz: How would you compare the jazz scene in Newark today as opposed to the jazz scene then?

Kirk: It’s not as much. It’s just that simple, but it is coming back, I do believe, particularly with the renaissance in Newark and the arts center is there. There are going to be more people in the town and that’s going to create the need for more arts and culture in general.

Cruz: In your work, you have come across a lot of young players. Some of them are some of the greats, Steve Turre comes to mind. What has that process been like seeing so many kids who when you first met them, you been here since 1974, to see them today now playing at the big jazz festivals and Jazz at Lincoln Center, NJPAC?

Kirk: Right. It’s absolutely great, and often I say when WBGO began, you had the likes of Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, I could go on, and on and on. I had the opportunity to work with those artists who mostly are no longer with us. Over the years, I’ve gotten an opportunity to work with the next generations. So I guess I’ve worked with probably about three different generations of musicians.

Cruz: You use to be really shy in terms of receiving public attention. You are now evolving from that.

Kirk: No, I’m not.

Cruz: You were never shy.

Kirk: I was, and I still am. I have to tell you, when I’m at Bethany Jazz Vespers and I introduce the musicians, and I always say other things like what’s happening in town and what have you, I am absolutely petrified. But I have learned to say to myself this will be over, take deep breaths and whatever else I have to do to get over it. But my strength is making something happen. So, no, I might pull it off, but I’m still nervous about it.

Cruz: Wow. Still making things happen at 80. Dorthaan Kirk, so great to see you again.