Celebrating Newark's 'First Lady of Jazz,' the WBGO News team spoke with WBGO founder Bob Ottenhoff, NJPAC president John Schreiber, and Bethany Baptist Church member Linda Caldwell Epps about Dorthaan Kirk's influence in jazz and the community.
Bob Ottenhoff: Imagine this. There’s 100 radio station in the New York metropolitan area. We decided we are going to start a new station. This is going to be a station that treats jazz as America’s classical art form. We have no money in the bank and no studio. We needed to do everything from scratch including getting some records for our record library and getting to know the jazz community.
I was fortune enough in my travels in public radio to meet Steve Robinson who had done a number of different successful things in radio including producing a series of programs with Rahsaan Roland Kirk. After I told him what we were planning to do with our station he said, “I’ve got the person that you’ve got to meet, that’s Dorthaan Kirk, and she lives not too far from Newark. She’s the widow of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.” So Dorthaan and I met. She became one of the first persons I hired for WBGO and it became one the best decisions I ever made. She went on to become our diplomat, our point of contact to jazz artists around the world and to the music industry. Without her contacts, her winning personality, her determination, I don’t think WBGO could have ever grown the way it has grown.
Dorthaan, I want to wish you a very happy birthday. You have done so much in your lifetime as a wife, as a mother, as a grandmother, and as a friend, a friend to thousands of people. That chance meeting that Steve Robinson made possible forty-some years ago has changed my life for sure, and has changed the life of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of listeners throughout the greater Newark area.
John Schreiber: I met Dorthaan Kirk almost forty-three years ago at the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport. I was a kid working for George Wein, the jazz festival promoter. Every summer we would take 150 musicians to Europe on tour. We also did a festival in the south of France called ‘La Grande Parade du Jazz.” My job was to check everybody in at the airport. I’d never done that before and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was totally overwhelmed. Musicians were yelling at me and into all of this marches Dorthaan and Rahsaan. I don’t know how it came to be, but she must have seen the look in my face and she said “let me get Rahsaan checked in.” She checked in Rahsaan and his band. Then for the next two hours she helped me with all of the other musicians. She didn’t know me from Adam, she had never seen me before. From then on, I was a lifer. I was sold because of her kindness which has been consistent through all of these years.
She’s such an effective producer. Her interest in education and bringing jazz to kids through the WBGO children’s concerts. Her interest in integrating jazz into the life of the community is something that she’s advanced through the years. The fact that she has never given up on jazz over such a long career is something that we are all grateful to her for.
People have been saying for seventy-five years that jazz is dead. Jazz is more vibrant and present with young people as well as younger adults than it’s ever been. Dorthaan has spent generations, Dorthaan is a beacon of what jazz is at its best. It’s all about collaboration. It’s all about creativity. It’s all about community. It’s all about excellence. It’s all about fun. She is all of those things. When I think of people in our community that represent that unique spirit, she is right up there, first among equals.
Linda Caldwell Epps: Thinking back on it I’ve known Dorthaan for at least twenty years I believe. I’ve known her because we are both members of Bethany Baptist Church. Dorthaan has always been an active member of the church as have I. But really our friendship and association gelled together in 2000 when the church under the pastor ship of M. William Howard decided to start a Vespers program here at the church. Most people know because I know that Dorthaan boasts about this everywhere, she is the chair of the Jazz Vespers committee. We’ve been going strong for some eighteen years now.
We’ve been able to not only attract first class musicians to the church but build a ministry around jazz. What I find the most rewarding is that it’s introduced jazz to a number of new converts who may have come with a friend or may have even been brought by a parent thinking that they had no appreciation for the music. But then they find their toes tapping and hands clapping, they become converts. Dr. Howard and Dorthaan always hoped that the church could serve in a ministerial position to the musicians. That has also happened. The late great Geri Allen became a member of this church through Jazz Vespers as have a number of other musicians.
She’s got us all saying, “bright moments” and signing our correspondence with bright moments. That term bright moments is totally in synch with the Christian doctrine that comes out of this church. Every moment that you are alive with the spirit which should be every moment that you live is a bright moment. No matter how dark things may seem, there are always rays of sunlight, there’s always that brightness that’s there. You need to stop, listen to your soul, find the bright moment and take advantage of it.
NJPAC is celebrating Dorthaan Kirk with a concert, “Bright Moments! Celebrating Dorthaan at 80!”