“Whenever I’m in Home Depot or the supermarket, somebody always recognizes me. Sometimes I’m the lady from ’BGO. Sometimes I’m the lady from Bethany,” said Ms. Kirk, of East Orange, from a red velvet-cushioned pew at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, recently.
The trumpeter Jon Faddis, her friend, was in the sanctuary with her, on a nearby stage. “Sometimes somebody will see me and say, ‘There’s Iris’s grandmother,’” she continued. “A few people have called me First Lady.”
That last title was bestowed upon her a few years ago by John Schreiber, president and chief executive of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. It is short for “Newark’s First Lady of Jazz,” and it explains why Ms. Kirk’s name is so frequently attached to jazz events in the city, including a Jan. 24 concert featuring the Rufus Reid Trio at Dorthaan’s Place, a jazz brunch series held at the performing arts center.
Ms. Kirk, 77, is the widow of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the blind multi-instrumentalist with a reputation for fierce musicianship and daring improvisation. Though he played with Charles Mingus and recorded with Quincy Jones, Mr. Kirk more frequently led his own bands, often dazzling his audiences by playing multiple saxophones at the same time. He died in 1977, but not before Ms. Kirk had a chance to absorb the culture of jazz and befriend its top players.
By 1978, when she was hired by WBGO, Newark’s public jazz station, she had immersed herself in the scene. “I knew record company people, I knew producers, I knew stuff that jazz people understood I knew but I didn’t fully know I knew,” Ms. Kirk said.
She was the third person hired at WBGO, New Jersey’s first public radio station, when it was on the fourth floor of Central High School (the space had previously been owned by the Newark Public Schools system). Since then, through decades of accomplishments that include helping her friend Alina Bloomgarden start Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1987, she has been a fixture at the station.
And WBGO, the only full-time jazz format station broadcast in New York and New Jersey, has benefited from her connections.
“It’s not just her contacts that make her so valuable,” said Gary Walker, WBGO’s music director. “Many people in jazz like to drop names. But Dorthaan has relationships that are genuine and deep, and they go way back,” he said. “She gets world class players to come to our programs.” Those players include Regina Carterand Joe Locke, who have performed at WBGO’s Kids Jazz Concert Series in recent years.
Ms. Kirk, now the station’s special events and community relations coordinator, is also the curator of the station’s art gallery, which is open to the public. She convinced Chuck Stewart and Leroy Campbell to show their work there. “Without her we wouldn’t have a chance of having them involved with us,” Mr. Walker said.
Other Newark institutions have benefited from her influence, too. One is Bethany Baptist, where Ms. Kirk coordinates a free monthly Jazz Vespers series that has featured entertainers like the Grammy Award-winning vocalist Gregory Porter.
The series, which was started in 2000 by the church’s recently retired pastor, the Rev. Dr. M. William Howard Jr., runs each year from October to June; the next concert is scheduled for Feb. 6 and will feature the Courtney Bryan Quartet with the harpist Brandee Younger. Coming acts include the Vincent Herring Quartet and the singer Dee Daniels.
“Dr. Howard is a No. 1 jazz fan, that’s why he started it,” said Ms. Kirk. But like Bob Ottenhoff, WBGO’s founder, who hired her in 1978, he counted on Ms. Kirk’s affiliations to elevate the program. In addition to Mr. Porter, she has attracted the saxophonist Jimmy Heath and the pianist Randy Weston.
“I’ve known Dorthaan probably 40 years,” Mr. Faddis said from the Bethany stage on a Saturday in December, before playing for a packed Vespers audience of 500. Mr. Faddis, of Teaneck, played in Lionel Hampton’s band and is a Dizzy Gillespie sound-alike; he is the former director of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. “She’s what brought me.”
Each Vespers show is followed by a reception, with food provided by the Jazz Vespers committee. “And they don’t shop at the lesser stores,” said Ms. Kirk, an avid home cook whose five grown grandchildren, most of them local, frequently show up at her doorstep bearing Tupperware containers (Ms. Kirk is the mother of two daughters; one daughter died in 2001). “It’s high quality food they’re putting out. So it’s been a great place for the community to come to get some great jazz, some great spiritualism and some great food.”
The same, minus the spiritualism, could be said about Dorthaan’s Place, the monthly brunch series at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Nico Kitchen & Bar. The series, for which Ms. Kirk recruits talent and acts as M.C., was started in 2012 “as a way to make us among the pre-eminent jazz presenters in the region,” said David Rodriguez, the center’s vice president and executive producer. “Due to Dorthaan’s history with the music,” he said, “we wanted her name on it.” In addition to the Rufus Reid Trio, coming performances include the Freddy Cole Trio, which will close the series for the season on April 10.
Dorthaan’s Place differs from Jazz Vespers “because it’s the middle of the day on a Sunday, and you can have bacon and eggs or brunch food and champagne,” Ms. Kirk said. “Also, you have to pay” ($45 for adults, including brunch, and $15 for children). But the high caliber of artists is generally the same.
After a rising Mr. Porter came for Jazz Vespers in 2012, Ms. Kirk enthusiastically pursued booking him at Dorthaan’s Place for its premiere season. But the timing did not work out.
“Everybody loved him at Vespers, and I knew he was going to be huge,” Ms. Kirk said.
She was right: Mr. Porter’s Grammy-winning 2013 album, “Liquid Spirit,” went on to commercial success rarely seen among jazz records, selling more than 100,000 copies in the United Kingdom.
In addition to her instinct for talent, Ms. Kirk stands firmly behind another notion of what makes a Dorthaan’s Place brunch worth attending.
“It’s the bacon,” she said. When the series first started, “they didn’t have it right. Then I started badgering them. Now it’s the best damn bacon I’ve ever had.”
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