WBGO Playdate

WBGO's Playdate: Dorthaan Kirk in the Interview Chair at the Institute of Jazz Studies

Dorthaan Kirk with Philip Thomas, photo by George Wirt

This is a web extra for Playdate Show #2. To hear The Vibration Society play "Spirits Up Above" from this episode, click on the link above. To hear the full show and more web extras, click here.

This week on Playdate, it's 1986 and WBGO's Dorthaan Kirk is introducing the Vibration Society with the music of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, onstage at Rutgers University-Newark. Here is Becca Pulliam's story from 25 years later, about a Q&A session with Ms. Kirk on the same campus.

In November, 2011, Dorthaan Kirk, one of WBGO's originals, unspooled wonderful stories about her life to a room full of curious people at a Jazz Research Roundtable at Rutgers University-Newark. She told us about her marriage to musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, early days at WBGO, and her involvement with the arts at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark.

Dr. Lewis Porter led the session. Porter is Professor of Music, and Founder and Director of the Master's Program in Jazz History and Research at R-U Newark. Rather than interrogate his interviewee, Porter just  steered a little and listened closely. We all did. Forty additional remote viewers watched a live stream.

Long story short, as Dorthaan (shown here with Newark arts presenter Philip Thomas in a George Wirt photo) 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 Dorthaan drove him home, Rahsaan would comment that he could have played faster (although 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, Paris, Australia, and introduced her to people everywhere, people who stay in touch today.

UPDATE: In August, 2013, I witnessed a great musical tribute to Rahsaan and Dorthaan at Cafe Stritch in San Jose, CA. The band -- from east and west coasts with Steve Turre leading -- played several consecutive nights to big crowds. Many of Rahsaan's fans came. They are old friends now. Dorthaan had a special table, where she listened intently, happy with the tribute. - B.P.


After Rahsaan's death in 1977, Dorthaan was regrouping when 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."

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.

Dr. Porter showed a short TV news story about WBGO from 1986 (the same year as the Vibration Society concert on Playdate), then moving into 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.

Currently, at Bethany Baptist Church, Dorthaan books Jazz Vespers and other events, and many who came Q&A at Rutgers know her from Bethany. Rutgers graduate student Vincent Gardner of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was there; so was 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.


L-R: Dorthaan Kirk, Lewis Porter, Karen Lee Schwarz .. photos 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.

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.

Thanks to Tim Wilkins.

Listen to additional tracks:

Support comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, New Jersey State Council on the Arts and WBGO.

Playdate funders

Produced for WBGO by Alexander Ariff,
with Becca Pulliam and Duke Markos, Executive Producer Josh Jackson.

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