Meet Dorthaan Kirk
Welcome to Dorthaan's Place
Newark’s “First Lady of Jazz” gathers top-notch musicians for NJPAC’s popular series of Sunday jazz brunches.
By Will Friedwald
"Rahsaan used to hate the word 'local'," says Dorthaan Kirk (pictured below), and both she and her late husband, the legendary jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk, have a point. In the context of the jazz scene of the New York and New Jersey area, local and international are the same thing. This is the undisputed jazz capital, and musicians from all over the world come here to make their careers: gypsy violin and guitar quintets from Paris, brass bands from Bulgaria, bebop piano wizards from Tokyo, you can hear all of them here on any given night of the week.
"We're blessed to have these resources. We're blessed to be where we are – geographically! I tell audiences at my shows that they should feel lucky to be jazz lovers living here. There's no other part of the world where they'd have so much access to so many great musicians."
Kirk calls these resources into play in at least three of her roles, most famously as Special Events and Programs Coordinator at WBGO-FM, as the force behind the Jazz Vespers series at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, and as the curator of Dorthaan’s Place, a series of jazz brunches at NICO Kitchen + Bar at NJPAC. (Kirk has been a key figure at WBGO since its beginnings, almost 35 years ago, and her input is no minor factor in making the Newark-based operation what is generally regarded as the best jazz radio station in the world.)
Likewise, the lineup of talent appearing at NICO is such that it could easily be described as being simultaneously local and international (what longtime pundit Stuart Nicholson calls "glocal"). Indeed, clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, born in Havana but a longtime Jersey resident, launched the NICO brunch series in November, followed by the celebrated drummer and bandleader Cecil Brooks III a month later. Coming up: trombonist and longtime Kirk collaborator Steve Turre (Jan. 19), trumpeter and educator Jon Faddis (Feb. 23), and singer Antoinette Montague (March 23). Some of these artists are denizens of Newark and surrounding environs, others come from other parts of the tri-state area, but all are well known to NJPAC audiences and WBGO listeners.
"Picking the right musicians for a brunch or a church service is a tricky process," Kirk admits. "You wouldn't want a really loud big band in either situation, for instance." Contrastingly, Kirk has made a point to include two of the most entertaining individuals in all of contemporary jazz in her series: D'Rivera and Faddis are not only virtuoso instrumentalists, but virtual stand-up comics (both apprenticed under Dizzy Gillespie, one of jazz's greatest funsters), who can entertain a crowd even shorn of their horns.
In the 2012-2013 season, Kirk produced four brunch events, all of which were sold out, and there's every indication that this year's shows will do as well. These three related but diverse challenges, at WBGO (where she's referred to so often as "the station mother" that one almost expects to see that position on her business card), at her church and NJPAC are merely three of the hats she wears. How does programming a church service differ from curating a jazz brunch, or from booking a regular nightclub show vs. a formal concert presentation?
"You have to know who to call," says Kirk. "These musicians come through for me time and again." Her decades of total immersion in the music, on every level, professional and personal, and truly living the music, inside and out, have taught her who to call. Just as her husband had the superhuman ability to play three saxophones at the same time, when it comes to deciding which musicians are right for which gig, Kirk has cultivated a sixth sense that borders on the supernatural.
"Chalk it up to the vitality of jazz," she says. "There aren't many kinds of music that are equally equipped to accompany the processes of both feeding the body and feeding the spirit."
Will Friedwald is the author of eight books on music and popular culture, including the award-winning A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, Sinatra: The Song Is You, Stardust Melodies, Tony Bennett: The Good Life and Jazz Singing.
Dec. 19, 2013