“Dorthaan’s Walk,” written and performed by Rahsaan Roland Kirk from the album, Booggie-Woogie String Along For Real.
“NY” written and performed by Kosta T from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive
Jo Reed: This is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Thursday, August 20th, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 5:00 p.m. Pacific, we are celebrating the 2020 NEA Jazz Masters. You can get all the details at Arts.gov. So it seemed like a good time to get better acquainted with our 2020 NEA Jazz Master, who’s the recipient of the A.B. Spellman Award for Jazz Advocacy, that longtime force of nature, Dorthaan Kirk. For more than four decades, Dorthaan Kirk has been a major force at WBGO Jazz, Newark Public Radio, the only full-time jazz-format station in the New York area. Called Newark’s First Lady of Jazz, Dorthaan has been active as a curator and producer of jazz events, primarily in and around Newark. She is an avid supporter of musicians and of jazz education for children. Dorthaan grew up in Texas and went to college in California, where she met her husband, the brilliant jazz instrumentalist, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Dorthaan might not have been a musician, but music was always a part of her life, as was radio.
Dorthaan Kirk: I grew up listening to music on the radio. I left Houston in 1955 to go to Los Angeles to go to college. Do you know my mother didn’t even have a TV then? So radio listening was very big. We listened to big bands. We listened to R&B like Ruth Brown and the likes of that, the Clovers. I remember “One Mint Julep,” and there was a station from Del Rio, Texas, where they played country music. I also grew up on country music, and to fast-forward to WBGO, I used to tell the people how I loved Dolly Parton, and they thought that was just really out of the box, and I explained to everybody I grew up in Texas on country and western music and of course the blues. When I moved to Los Angeles, I was drawn to jazz. At the time, I did not know that jazz was America’s art form. Jazz was our music of the day, much like hip-hop, rap and what have you is the music of today, and the truth be told, we didn’t know it was America’s art form or anything like that. It’s what everybody did back then, and at that time it was jumping. You had music all over Los Angeles. You even had the Sunday-morning jam sessions, and you had a theater there, which is where I first saw Miles Davis on Adams Boulevard. There was a theater, and when the clubs closed, artists would perform there, and they would start at 2:00 in the morning, and when that was over, again, you could even go to the breakfast jams that they would have. So it was everywhere. That’s what we did.
Jo Reed: As Dorthaan became more interested in the music, she started opening up her dining room to jazz musicians for a taste of home.
Dorthaan Kirk: As you know, jazz musicians’ life is traveling on the road, which means hotels and restaurants. So, having said that, a lot of the jazz musicians would have a certain family in town that they were close to, and, consequently, that family would invite them over to their house so they wouldn’t have to eat at a restaurant, and they could have a good, home-cooked meal. I met Rahsaan-- I don’t know if you know this, but I met him when I was married to my first husband, and I met him through a mutual-friend musician in Los Angeles, and when Rahsaan would come to town he became one of the artists that came to my house to have a good, home-cooked meal.
Jo Reed: For the uninitiated, here’s a little background on Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He was a musical powerhouse, a great jazz multi-instrumentalist who played the trumpet, the tenor saxophone, the flute and many other instruments, often simultaneously, and I’m talking about multiple horns and/or woodwinds for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. He was an absolute original. His knowledge of music was both wide and deep.
Dorthaan Kirk: He had over 7,000 albums. Rahsaan collected music anywhere from Southern white gospel to classical and everything in between, and whenever he had an idea to record an album, he would think about it, and he would draw off a lot in that collection, and if you listen to all of the albums that he made, none is like the other one, but he always had a concept, and Rahsaan’s world was listening, and he listened to everything.
Jo Reed: It makes sense that Rahsaan’s world would be listening, since he lost his sight at a very young age, and maybe that factored into Rahsaan Roland Kirk having a great musical mind.
Dorthaan Kirk: Rahsaan played 45 woodwind instruments. I couldn’t name them all if my life depended on it, but he played 45 woodwind instruments. His favorite, I might add, was the tenor saxophone, and he always felt that he never got the credit that he thought he should have for being astute on the saxophone alone. He was really, really known for playing those three instruments at a time. When we went to Australia on a tour, they did a press conference in the airport, and I have clippings from that, because it was in the paper somewhere, and he had a digeridoo that he was playing, and that’s the indigenous instrument of the Aboriginal people. So anything that was a woodwind, he played it.
Jo Reed: Dorthaan and Rahsaan married in 1971. By then they’d moved east, first to New York City and then to Philadelphia, before putting down roots in New Jersey.
Dorthaan Kirk: We decided to move to New Jersey. He had to be close to New York. Why? He had to hear the music, and he had to go to Pontus [ph?] Music and Rubin’s [ph?], who was the horn-repair guy. So he made the decision that we would move to New Jersey, and what he wanted to do was to have students, private students, to come to the house, which we redid the whole basement. Rahsaan always wanted to do something so that he didn’t have to travel on the road all the time. Rahsaan felt like jazz musicians shouldn’t have to stay on the road 300 days a year to make a living, and Rahsaan was one of those artists that was in such demand, if his agent, who was Jack Whittemore, had accepted all the gigs he got requests for, he could’ve worked 365 days a year.
Jo Reed: But Rahsaan did tour extensively. Dorthaan went with him 95 percent of the time, but she’s quick to point out she had her own life and her own things to do with one exception.
Dorthaan Kirk: My only obligation was to be with him and collect the receipt to give to the accountant when we got back. He was very, very business-minded, unlike a lot of the musicians. He took unemployment and federal taxes and all of that out of the musicians’ pay, because he always felt like if he didn’t want to take a gig, the musicians shouldn’t have to suffer. So that’s why he paid into unemployment. But I collected all of the receipts to send to Mr. Chastson [ph?], who was our accountant at the time. He had somebody that traveled with him. He had a number of people over the years that traveled with him. Every city he went to, he had to go to the record store or the music store. Even if he had just been to the record store last week, that’s what he did. That was one of his passions. So if he wanted to go to the record store during the day, he had someone to go with him and to assist him with his instruments and what have you at the club. I saw a lot. Even though it was 7 short years, it was like 20 years, because so much is in my head that I did in that short period of time.
Jo Reed: He died tragically young at 41.
Dorthaan Kirk: He did.
Jo Reed: He left you his music. He left you his publishing company.
Dorthaan Kirk: He did, yes.
Jo Reed: You had to get business-savvy.
Dorthaan Kirk: Yes. It’s interesting that you would say that. One of the first things that he did was to have me to read the book on the business of music that was written by Bill Krasilovsky. I read that book, and I had no idea what it was talking about; however, as he made albums and so on and so forth and I would hear him talking business talk, I would refer to the book. So when he died, I had a pretty good knowledge of what was what, and guess what? Mr. Krasilovsky became my attorney, and this was his philosophy. He said he had made a lot of money being the representative for rock stars, and he was very, very into helping small publishers, such as myself.
Jo Reed: Then, a few months after Rahsaan died, Dorthaan received a fateful phone call about somebody who was beginning a radio station in Newark, New Jersey.
Dorthaan Kirk: Rahsaan died December 1977. He had friends and fans all over. One of his friends from Boston, who worked in public radio, by the name of Steve Robinson-- and Steve and I had a long talk, and he said, “Well, Dorthaan, what are you going to do now?” Of course, my response was, “I have no idea what I was going to do.” So Steve says to me, “Well, there’s this guy that lives right here in Newark, and he’s starting a radio station.” I said, “Yeah, and?” He’s like, “Well, why don’t we ask him to hire you?” I said, “Steve, I don’t know anything about radio.” Steve was a person that always had great ideas. Some of them worked, and some of them didn’t. So he said, “Well, I’m going to call him.” So he called him up. His name is Bob Ottenhoff, and so we met at Sparky J’s, which was a jazz club. I had a long talk with Bob, and he just said, “Yes, I’ll hire you,” and I thought, “These young white guys are nuts.” I think they were both somewhere in their late 20s at the time, and so long story short, we moved into the current WBGO January 1979 with absolutely nothing but a couple of old desks, and I believe the dollars that we had-- I think Bob had a $75,000 grant. That’s how we started, and now it’s 40 years later, and everybody said it couldn’t be done. It was very bold to start a jazz radio station and especially at that time, and as I look back, everybody was so young and so innocent and so on the same page. I don’t think anybody ever thought about it not working, and as we look back, when I see the different people, we’ll talk about, “Remember when we did this? Remember when we did that?” That was crazy, but it worked. I don’t know if you can digest this or not, but our very first fundraiser on air we raised $25,000. That was amazing back then. We thought we had turned the world around. So, between that and between asking for funding from different corporations, Bob was a great fundraiser. We did a lot of events early on, where we had sponsors, and if you have sponsors to pick up the tab for the expenses for your event, everything after that is net and gravy, and so all of those different things helped us to grow. As the years passed, we got more and more credibility, which meant places like Prudential and the bigger guys like that had started to fund us, and that’s how it was done.
Jo Reed: Dorthaan became the special-events and community-relations coordinator at WBGO, and she hit the ground running with successful event after successful event. Take the WBGO Jazzathon.
Dorthaan Kirk: Our first Jazzathon was 24 hours. It was held at Fat Tuesday’s, and we started out at midnight. Clark Terry and his group was performing at the club that particular week. We started at midnight on a Saturday night and went through to midnight Sunday night, and this is how it worked. For $10 you could come in, $10. Remember, this was back in the early ‘80s. For $10 you could come in and hear 4 hours of music, and when that was over, those people had to leave, and others would come. We had different musicians for different of those shifts. The musicians performed for free. This is one of the events that we look back and say we were nuts to do it, but it worked. The club got all of the publicity, and they got the proceeds from the bar. We got the proceeds from all of the people coming in, paying $10. So that was one of the things we did. We used to have an annual record fair. We used to have singles parties. Every New Year’s Eve we used to do a live broadcast to three cities across the country, and WBGO was the producer of that. When we would do those special events, not only would we benefit from whatever they paid on the door, but you’re exposing yourself to more people that may not have known about you. Consequently, they’re going to contribute when you fundraise.
Jo Reed: Dorthaan also turned the halls and the waiting room of WBGO into a community art gallery.
Dorthaan Kirk: Well, one of the things that I’m most proud of was the WBGO gallery. WBGO hosted art exhibits. We would have a huge reception, and we would invite the public to come in. The artwork was generally up for two months. So as long as the art was up, we had a promo on the air that said the public could view the artwork during regular business hours. So we always had people in and out all of the time, because WBGO was located a block from the art center, a block from the hotel, kind of in the heart of downtown Newark.
Jo Reed: So Dorthaan was creating cross-cultural alliances and bringing the community into the radio station, which proved crucial for WBGO. But perhaps the event she is most proud of creating and producing is the WBGO children’s concert series.
Dorthaan Kirk: That children’s concert series started out in WBGO’s performance studio, and we would do two performances, 11:00 and 1:00 on Saturdays, free and open to the public, and the grandparents, the parents, the aunties, uncles, whatever, would bring the kids. The idea of the children’s concert series was to introduce young people to jazz, hence doing something to create a new audience for jazz, because jazz supporters are getting older. They’re leaving here. There’s a lot of competition in jazz now. There’s so much to look at on TV, on the Internet, etcetera, etcetera. So that was the purpose, and this was the structure. The musician had to come up with a theme. It could be improvisation. It could be rhythm, whatever they came up with, and whatever their theme was, that is what they presented to the young people. If it was improvisation, they would explain what that meant and have different of the people in the band to play something or what have you. They would have the young people at the end to ask questions. Some of the musicians that I hired would have a lot of interaction with the young people in the audience. That was a very hard project, and I will tell you why. Just because the musician knows music and he’s great at his craft or what have you, it had to be a very special person to have to relate to young kids. So it had to be interesting enough to hold the attention of a really young person and maybe a little older, but I was able to ask different musicians to recommend, and I would talk to different people, and before I hired a musician, I would talk to them a lot about his or her presentation, what have you. So it worked out. I produced that series for 25 years plus. We started in 1993, and I retired in 2018, and over the years I am so happy to say a lot of those young people that came to the concerts when they were little, whether they came with their parents, their aunties or whatever, they have now grown up, and they have little kids, and they have brought them to the concerts. I just think that’s wonderful.
Jo Reed: Bethany Baptist Church did not have great attendance at its Saturday service, but its minister loved jazz, and Dorthaan was one of the congregants. So he had an idea, and in January 2001, Jaz Vespers was born.
Dorthaan Kirk: Dr. Moses William Howard Jr. came to Bethany. He came up with this big idea making a Jazz Vespers in a Baptist church, which is unheard of, okay? I was the one that scheduled them. We started off with seed money from the deacons. They gave me $5,000 to start out with. We were to present Jazz Vespers October through June. In the summer, people go on vacation, etcetera. I started out using various local artists. We did promotion on WBGO, meaning the announcers would talk about it. It would be on the music calendar, and when we first started, I asked WBGO announcers to come and host the event and introduce the musicians. At my church, we don’t charge for anything, so we couldn’t say it’s $20, $25 or what have you. Rather, it’s a freewill offering, and so we would just ask the people to support it, because we had to pay the musicians, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. There came a time when we did get some funding from Essex County Department of Cultural Affairs, so as the time passed, I started to ask bigger-name artists. I have to be careful, because I don’t want to pigeonhole anybody. The larger the artist, the more the audience grew, and I would let them know we won’t be able to present the Randy Westons and the Jimmy Heaths to you all the time, but I promise you one thing. We will only bring you the best.” So through working at WBGO and knowing all these artists and new artists and what have you, I have been able to expose the musicians to people that they never would’ve been exposed to before, and also the audience has gotten to see tons and tons of musicians, because we’re now celebrating 20 years. That’s a lot. Jazz Vespers has become almost like the big club to go to in Newark. Newark, in spite of its growth with all of the apartments and the arts centers and all of that, it doesn’t have a jazz club. There is the Pirate that presents on Friday nights, but at Bethany, even though it’s only once per month, I bring in the bigger names and what have you. So it’s become the in place to go to.
Jo Reed: You have gotten so many awards, First Lady of Jazz, on and on and on, and now you’re an NEA Jazz Master. Can you just say what that means for you to be named an NEA Jazz Master?
Dorthaan Kirk: Overwhelm. I’m never speechless. Anybody know me know I talk all the time. I was absolutely speechless. It’s overwhelming, little old me, and I must say it’s because of the support of all these musicians coming to my rescue, as I call it, and they have never hesitated. They trust me. That’s probably why I’ve been able to do all the things I have over the years, because the musicians know I’ve got their back.
Jo Reed: So many congratulations. It is so well deserved.
Dorthaan Kirk: Thank you. As we like to say, it is truly a bright moment.
Jo Reed: That was 2020 Jazz Master, the recipient of the A.B. Spellman Award for Jazz Advocacy, Dorthaan Kirk. Remember to join us on August 20th at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 5:00 p.m. Pacific, for an online live concert to honor the 2020 NEA Jazz Masters. Learn all about it at Arts.gov. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Just a note, the music you heard during the podcast is called “Dorthaan’s Walk.” It’s from “Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real,” and it’s the final album recorded by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.