Dorthaan Kirk

Dorthaan Kirk in the Interview Chair at the Institute of Jazz Studies

Wednesday night one of WBGO's originals unspooled stories about three chapters in her life  to a room full of curious people at a Jazz Research Roundtable at Rutgers Newark. She told us about her marriage to musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, early days at WBGO, and involvement with the arts at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark. Rather than interrogate her, Professor Lewis Porter just  steered a little and listened closely. We all did. Forty additional remote viewers watched a live stream.

111116_15_DK_LewisPorter_Karen_byGeorgeWirt_2011
Dorthaan Kirk and Philip Thomas by George Wirt c 2011

Long story short, as Dorthaan likes to say, Rahsaan was an amazing man. The two met in Los Angeles through friends. In time, they married and she moved to the Northeast, ultimately to New Jersey, where they lived until his death in 1977. Rahsaan had thousands of record albums -- 4,000 when they made the final move from Philadelphia to East Orange. Dorthaan created a detailed index card for every LP (I love this story) and packed the albums alphabetically in boxes. Movers transported the boxes to their new home, where Dorthaan shelved the albums in perfect order, as her husband needed them to be.

Rahsaan was blind, you see, although he did not favor that word or the term "circular breathing" (one of his amazing techniques). He lived in a world of sound. His dreams were his religion. After a gig, as she drove him home, he would comment that he could have played faster (no one could keep up with him). He was a good businessman, provider and visionary, not only about music but also about how jazz could be better organized. He was in demand 365 nights a year. He took his wife with him to London (Ronnie Scott's), Paris, beyond, and introduced her to people everywhere, people who stay in touch today.

THE NEXT CHAPTER: I'LL HIRE HER

After Rahsaan's death in 1977, Dorthaan was regrouping at one. One of his young friends from public radio in Boston called to tell her about a start-up jazz station in Newark. Steve Robinson and Bob Ottenhoff were transforming the Central High School FM station into an independent organization. Reluctantly, Dorthaan agreed, and Robinson introduced her to  Ottenhoff, who said "I'll hire her." ( Oh for the days of job offers, I hope they come again.) At first, DK's contacts in the jazz record business helped 'BGO get new product. But it is more than her connections: it's how she values the musicians as people and artists, in her life and career, that helped set up the station and make it what it is today.

Porter showed a short TV news story from 1986 about the station, then moving into our downstairs studios at 54 Park Place. On camera 25 years ago, a staff woman told the reporter, "We have a one million dollar budget and twenty thousand members" contributing 60% of the revenue.

At Bethany Baptist Church, Dorthaan books Jazz Vespers and other events, and many who came on Wednesday night know her from Bethany. Rutgers graduate student Vincent Gardner of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra came; so did Philip Thomas from Newark Symphony Hall. Dan Morgenstern of the IJS knew and championed Rahsaan, and came to see Dorthaan at the Jazz Research Roundtable.

111116_15_DK_LewisPorter_Karen_byGeorgeWirt_2011
Dorthaan Kirk, Lewis Porter, Karen Lee Schwarz, and Bright Moments by George Wirt c 2011

Toward the end of the session, Karen Lee Schwarz told Dorthaan her story. Schwarz is a high school music teacher in Asbury Park and studying for her Master's in Jazz at Rutgers Newark . Years ago, she was living around the corner from Dorthaan and Rahsaan and learning the saxophone.  Standing on her fire escape, she would practice his "Desolation Blues" and try to attract her neighbor's attention. Did she? Not to the knowledge of anyone at this Jazz Research Roundtable. There are indeed many things we will never know.