NEA Jazz Masters: Tribute to Dorthaan Kirk

“I was absolutely stunned and speechless (I’m never speechless) when I learned I was receiving the award. What an honor to be in such great company of others that have received it and to be acknowledged in such a big way for the work I love to do in jazz. I will continue my work to the best of my ability as long as I’m allowed to.”

Dorthaan Kirk has been a major force at WBGO Jazz 88.3 FM, Newark Public Radio—the only full-time jazz format station in New York and New Jersey—working in various roles for more than four decades. Called “Newark’s First Lady of Jazz,” Kirk has been active as a curator and producer of jazz events primarily in and around Newark, New Jersey, and is an avid supporter of musicians and jazz education for children.

Kirk grew up in Texas and lived in California before moving to the East Coast in 1970 with husband Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a jazz great known for playing multiple horns simultaneously, whose career she managed. Kirk was already a jazz fan before marriage, but her husband introduced her to more musicians and new venues, and she became more knowledgeable about jazz history through him.

When her husband died unexpectedly in 1977 at age 41, Kirk wanted to continue to work in the jazz business. She was introduced to Bob Ottenhoff, who was working on getting the Newark Board of Education to transfer their underutilized broadcast license to create the first public radio station in New Jersey, as a full-time jazz station. Ottenhoff hired Kirk as one of the original employees that launched WBGO in 1979. Before retiring in 2018, Kirk was the special events and community relations coordinator; the curator of the station’s art gallery, which is open to the public; and managed the annual WBGO Jazz-a-thon as well as the WBGO Children’s Jazz Series, which offers free jazz concerts by top-name musicians specifically for young people since 1993.

Kirk has been active for decades in the Newark community presenting jazz events. In 2000, she coordinated with the Rev. Dr. M. William Howard Jr. of the Bethany Baptist Church in Newark to present free-of-charge monthly Jazz Vespers, live jazz events during the months from October to June, that have featured nationally renowned performers, such as Jimmy Heath, Jon Faddis, and Gregory Porter. Since 2012, Kirk has been the consultant producer for a monthly jazz brunch series titled Dorthaan’s Place in her honor at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Nico Kitchen & Bar in Newark. In addition to recruiting talent, she has also acted as master of ceremonies for these events.