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A Word with WBGO's Own Dorthaan Kirk, Newark Jazz Icon and 2020 NEA Jazz Master

Dorthaan Kirk can vividly recall the evening she introduced her fellow 2020 NEA Jazz Master, the esteemed bassist Reggie Workman, for an event at the Montclair Art Museum. It was March 5 — just 24 weeks ago, though it almost feels like another lifetime.

In that moment, Kirk and Workman were expecting to see each other again in a few weeks, for the NEA Jazz Masters ceremony at SFJAZZ in San Francisco. Instead, within a matter of days, the lockdown had begun. The ceremony was put on hold, like so much else in the age of COVID-19; it finally took place this week, as a virtual affair. Here is the video tribute to Dorthaan:

“When I found out that April was going to be postponed to August, I didn’t worry about it,” Dorthaan says now, speaking by phone from her home in East Orange, N.J. “I imagine most of the world had no idea we would be in lockdown this long.”

As a vital presence at WBGO since its inception, DK (as she’s affectionately known) has more than earned this year’s A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy. She has also earned her sobriquet as Newark’s First Lady of Jazz — a fact acknowledged today by Mayor Ras J. Baraka, in an official letter.

“Since 1970, you have been one of the great behind-the-scenes figures in jazz music,” writes Mayor Baraka, “helping to found WBGO Jazz 88.3, serving as its Director of Community Relations and Special Events, promoting and producing concerts throughout the region. You also managed the career of your husband, jazz saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and serve as Co-Chair of the Bethany Baptist Church Jazz Vespers Committee.”

Over the months since the lockdown began, Dorthaan has made the best of her circumstances: taking advantage of the extra time to organize her trove of memorabilia and cook some of the more ambitious meals in her repertoire. “I’m one of the blessed ones,” she says, pointing out that her family is close, and her house has a deck and a long front porch that makes socially distanced visits possible. (When I called her yesterday evening, the singer Antoinette Montague had just stopped by with a flower arrangement.)

Which is not to imply that the NEA Jazz Masters adjustment came without some disappointment. “This might be selfish, but I was really looking forward to all the various friends I had coming from other states, and my family from New Jersey, my family from Houston,” says DK. “Everybody was all set, and I had planned a luncheon so everybody that didn’t know each other could meet each other.”

Credit Bill May
An evening at the home of Amiri and Amina Baraka, pictured at left, next to Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Dorthaan Kirk.

That gift for human connection — the instinct to draw people together, often around this music — has been one of DK’s enduring contributions. To that end, I asked what stories she might have about Mayor Baraka, whose parents, Amiri and Amina Baraka, were longtime friends. “I have a bunch of memories of going to their house,” Dorthaan says. “I can remember him as a very young person, coming to the door. And as soon as he saw who it was, he would let us in.” (She has an especially fond memory of the occasion when Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone were both at the Baraka domicile.)

This evening’s webcast will be star-studded but socially distant, and to hear her tell it, DK is still warming to the format. But there is no ambivalence whatsoever about her feelings as an inductee. “I am beside myself,” she says. “From time to time, I have to almost pinch myself to really believe this is all happening, to little old me.”

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.