Some may not realize Newark, New Jersey was a hotbed for jazz from 1925-1950 and into the early 60s. There are two women who selflessly continue Newark’s jazz tradition and its cultural history: 2020 NEA Jazz Master Dorthaan Kirk; and Barbara J. Kukla, former longtime editor of the Newark Star-Ledger and the author of five books.
Kukla says her interest in jazz began to peak during her early 20s in Newark at the Bridge Club and Key Club as a reporter for the Star-Ledger. During that time she met jazz singer Viola Wells (Miss Rhapsody), one of Newark’s local stars whose career covered six decades of jazz and blues.
“I never imagined myself running around to jazz events all over the world with an old black woman more than 40 years my senior,” said the author. “At her invitation I became a regular at jazz parties where scores of roots of jazz musicians gathered.” Miss Rhapsody became a jazz mentor to Kukla, who dedicated her book Swing City to the singer stating, “For Miss Rhapsody, who inspired my life and this work.” The singer stopped the show at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1939. A local New Jersey newspaper described her as “the perfect example of a local girl making good.”
During the 1940s, big bands ruled and large dance halls were all the rage for the younger set. In Newark the place was Skateland on Montgomery Street, where Pancho Diggs and his orchestra presided. In Harlem it was the Savoy Ballroom where youngsters took aerobatic dips and flips disrupting the lindy-hop style by white teens.
When bebop began boiling at Minton’s in Harlem in 1947, Newark tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec was on the scene. He found kindred spirits in the likes of Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and Kenny Clarke, with whom he wrote the bebop anthem “Mop Mop.”
At the same time John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker were playing in Newark Third Ward spots like the Front Room and the Piccadilly. The Key Club and Sparky J’s (where Roland Kirk performed following rehabilitation from a stroke) have faded, but the recently renovated Priory remains on West Market Street after 30 years. Kukla pointed out none of the former jazz clubs received landmark status, as was the case in NYC with such clubs as Lenox Lounge, Count Basie’s, or St. Nick’s Pub.
Jazz stands tall at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), the Newark Museum, and new spots like the Ideal Bar and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Over the years, Dorthaan Kirk has become an influential voice in establishing new jazz programs and bringing jazz to non-traditional venues in Newark. There is a section on Kirk in Kukla’s book, Jazz in Newark.
She met Bob Ottenhoff, who hired her to join him inlaunching WBGO — the only 24-hour jazz station in the tri-state area—in 1979.
Before retiring in 2018, Kirk was WBGO’s special events and community relations coordinator, staging hundreds of jazz events in and around Newark. She also coordinated the WBGO Children’s Jazz Series, where she introduced thousands of children to jazz.
Known as Newark’s First Lady of Jazz, Kirk has been extremely busy since her retirement. She heads the Dorthaan Kirk Scholarship Opportunity Fund, “It was established by Bob [founder of WBGO]. He wanted to do something to honor me,” said Kirk. “The organization assists young people in Northern New Jersey to advance their careers in jazz as mangers, musicians, or in supporting roles.” As the president of Rokir Music Corp. Kirk is building on the legacy of her late husband, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. “I am trying to organize all his information, cassette interviews, music from recording dates, scrapbooks, and photographs,” she said. “I would like to see it all in some institution. Getting his music played by other musicians and used in commercials is another goal.” Kirk is interested in getting The Case of the Three Sided Dream, a documentary about Rahsaan Kirk, screened in various cities across the United States including at the Newark Museum. It premiered at the South by Southwest Music Festival in 2014.
Known as Newark’s First Lady of Jazz, Kirk has been extremely busy since her retirement. She heads the Dorthaan Kirk Scholarship Opportunity Fund. As the president of Rokir Music Corp. Kirk is building on the legacy of her late husband, Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Kirk and the then pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, Rev. Dr. M. William Howard Jr., created the “Jazz Vespers” series now in its 20th year at the church. “We try to include local musicians, very young people,
and established musicians like Randy Weston, Jimmy Heath, and Brianna Thomas,” noted Kirk. “For the last three years NJPAC has been a co-sponsor, allowing me to offer larger honorariums.”
Kirk and Kukla are devout jazz messengers whose jazz endeavors extend far beyond New Jersey into the international realm. Together they have a wealth of jazz knowledge that should not be lost.