When Turkey Meant Jazz

Ahmet (left) and Nesuhi Ertegun, photographed here in the 1940s. The brothers often brought jazz musicians back to their father's mansion — the Turkish ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C. — for jam sessions. i i

hide captionAhmet (left) and Nesuhi Ertegun, photographed here in the 1940s. The brothers often brought jazz musicians back to their father's mansion — the Turkish ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C. — for jam sessions.

William Gottlieb/The Library of Congress
Ahmet (left) and Nesuhi Ertegun, photographed here in the 1940s. The brothers often brought jazz musicians back to their father's mansion — the Turkish ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C. — for jam sessions.

Ahmet (left) and Nesuhi Ertegun, photographed here in the 1940s. The brothers often brought jazz musicians back to their father's mansion — the Turkish ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C. — for jam sessions.

William Gottlieb/The Library of Congress

The Embassy of Turkey and Jazz at Lincoln Center announced a series of six jazz concerts today, to be held throughout 2011 at the residence of the Turkish ambassador in Washington, D.C.

Wait, what? Why would the biggest jazz institution the world has ever seen work with the Turkish embassy? What kind of backroom dealings transpired to make this seemingly arbitrary alliance happen?

A hint: They happened in the '30s and '40s.

Perhaps you know of Atlantic Records, one of the most important record labels for jazz and R&B from 1947 onward. John Coltrane and Charles Mingus recorded seminal work for Atlantic; so did Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Sonny and Cher.

Atlantic was co-founded by Ahmet Ertegun, who was later joined by his older brother Nesuhi Ertegun (the big jazz buff of the company). The Ertegun brothers were the two sons of the second Turkish ambassador to the U.S., Mehmet Munir Ertegun; they were in their teens when their father accepted the position in Washington, D.C. in 1935. The brothers were huge music fans, and threw themselves into the city's jazz scene.

Trombonist Lawrence Brown and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, both of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, pictured at a jam session at the Turkish ambassador's residence. i i

hide captionTrombonist Lawrence Brown and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, both of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, pictured at a jam session at the Turkish ambassador's residence.

William Gottlieb/The Library of Congress
Trombonist Lawrence Brown and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, both of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, pictured at a jam session at the Turkish ambassador's residence.

Trombonist Lawrence Brown and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, both of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, pictured at a jam session at the Turkish ambassador's residence.

William Gottlieb/The Library of Congress

Being the '30s and '40s, this necessarily meant they made frequent forays into black neighborhoods, and especially to the Howard Theatre, a center for African American entertainment. Naturally, the enterprising brothers started putting on shows throughout town, and often invited musicians over to their father's mansion for jam sessions. The Washington Post has more:

The Erteguns began promoting concerts, too — at the Jewish Community Center, the National Press Club and elsewhere — partly because they so loved the music but also out of a sense of social responsibility. "You can't imagine how segregated Washington was at that time," Nesuhi told The Post in 1979, a decade before his death. "Blacks and whites couldn't sit together in most places. So we put on concerts. ... Jazz was our weapon for social action."
They regularly invited musicians back to the embassy. The typical gathering began with a meal served by servants in tuxedos. Then came the sweetest dessert for hard-core swing fans.
"Nesuhi and I made the most out of the extra-territorial situation offered by the embassy by inviting musicians who'd played in town the night before over for Sunday lunch," Ahmet recalled in his 2001 book, "What'd I Say: The Atlantic Story." "They all loved the idea of having lunch at an embassy, particularly one as well-appointed and in such grand surroundings as the Turkish embassy in Washington. After lunch, jam sessions would inevitably develop."

And the musicians? Folks like Lester Young, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, the horn players in Duke Ellington's band. You know, only the all-time legends of the music, jamming in a living room.

After renovations three years ago, the ambassador's residence looks as palatial as it must have in 1940, littered with marble furniture and ornate wood sculptures. Living in the building is like "putting a mattress in a museum," said Turkish ambassador Namik Tan. He held a press conference today, with representatives from Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Boeing Company (which is underwriting the concerts) from the elegantly upholstered corner room where both the Erteguns' jam sessions and future concerts will take place.

Turkish ambassador Namik Tan (center) addresses journalists at a press conference, along with Jazz at Lincoln Center's Cat Henry (left) and the Boeing Company's Tim Keating (right). i i

hide captionTurkish ambassador Namik Tan (center) addresses journalists at a press conference, along with Jazz at Lincoln Center's Cat Henry (left) and the Boeing Company's Tim Keating (right).

Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR
Turkish ambassador Namik Tan (center) addresses journalists at a press conference, along with Jazz at Lincoln Center's Cat Henry (left) and the Boeing Company's Tim Keating (right).

Turkish ambassador Namik Tan (center) addresses journalists at a press conference, along with Jazz at Lincoln Center's Cat Henry (left) and the Boeing Company's Tim Keating (right).

Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR

The first performance in the series will feature pianist Orrin Evans and his trio on March 1, to be followed by pianist Helen Sung and her quartet on April 12. The four other performances have yet to be confirmed, but Jazz at Lincoln Center Associate Director Cat Henry said that at least one will prominently feature Washington, D.C. jazz musicians, and that the series will generally feature artists "whose talent exceeds their fame."

Since capacity is limited to around 150, the concerts are currently officially invitation-only. However, fans in the D.C. area are advised to follow the Facebook page of the Embassy of Turkey for ticket availability to the general public. The Embassy wants to make the performances "as accessible to as many people as possible," Henry said.

As for the Erteguns, Nesuhi died in 1989, but Ahmet lived to 2006 — long enough to become a big supporter of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Like his brother, he strongly believed in uniting people through music, and had deep sympathy for those facing senseless discrimination, according to Ambassador Tan. Appropriately, Tan also noted that in English, the name Ertegun means "living in a hopeful future."

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