The Ertegüns and their Lasting Legacy
In an interview published in 1979 Ahmet Ertegün, the founder of the famous Atlantic Records Company, related “When I came to this country I learned a lot about human greatness, and also a lot about human stupidity. When I wanted to get together with American musicians whose records I had admired in Turkey, I found there was no place in Washington where we could meet; no hotel or restaurant where I could take my black friends. The only place we could put on sessions was the Turkish Embassy.” It was a deeply segregated society in which Ahmet Ertegün’s father Münir Ertegün took office as the Turkish Ambassador to the United States (1934-1944). However, the Ertegün family’s love for jazz and their belief in the equality of people would conquer all the challenges they had to face for breaking the rule.
As we have just left behind January 15, the day commemorating the life and achievements of Martin Luther King Jr, one questions whether Martin Luther King’s “dream” has been realized. Although huge steps have been taken towards the goal of achieving racial equality since 1963, the year when he delivered his “I have a dream” speech, African Americans still suffer income inequality, unemployment, and racial bias.
However, in a time when in much of America, racial segregation was strictly enforced, both by Jim Crow laws and by age-old custom, when the civil rights movement was still in its infancy, and when laws ensuring voting rights and equal access to jobs and public facilities were decades away, a Turkish family was realizing King’s dream in the city where he would deliver his famous speech. In the parlors of the Turkish Embassy in Washington D.C., people were in fact “not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The newspaper articles during Münir Ertegün’s ambassadorial tenure reveal that he was one of the most popular ambassadors in Washington D.C. Ertegün’s life was a series of achievements. He was the Turkish legal counsel in international law to the Sublime Porte of the late Ottoman Empire and a diplomat of the Turkish Republic in its early years. His grandfather was the Sufi shaykh Ibrahim Edhem Efendi. Ertegün was a close figure and aide to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk during the Turkish Independence War and the chief legal counsel of the Turkish delegation to the Treaty of Lausanne. And he was the second Turkish ambassador to the U.S. after the reestablishment of Turkey-U.S. relations following a 10-year period of severance. Not only he himself received media attention, but also his wife Hayrunnisa and his three children Nesuhi, Ahmet and Selma were portrayed in the newspapers as collectors of various objects, such as advertising matchbooks and little glass animals, while the two sons concentrated on collecting rare jazz and swing recordings. In a Los Angeles Times Article published in1941, it is noted that Ahmet (18), and Nesuhi (23) were spending “their waking hours in search of rare records.”
In 1940, Ahmet Ertegün became a student at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, and with his brother Nesuhi's help, he began organizing jazz concerts on campus. The two insisted that the performances be racially integrated. Ahmet and Nesuhi were also regular patrons at Washington D.C.'s Howard Theater, where the leading jazz and blues stars of the day performed. Also in 1940, the two brothers began to invite musicians back to the embassy. The typical gathering would begin with a meal served by servants in tuxedos followed by jam sessions. In 1942, the two brothers staged Washington's first integrated concert at the only venue that was willing to host it: The Jewish Community Center.
Ahmet Ertegün related that his father soon began receiving letters from outraged Southern senators, saying, “It has been brought to my attention, sir, that a person of color was seen entering your house by the front door. I have to inform you that in our country, this is not a practice to be encouraged.” However, his father insisted that in the embassy, “his nation's house,” all, regardless of color, would enter through the front door and be treated with dignity and respect.
There is no question that the two brothers had inherited their stand for human equality from their father. A few months before Münir Ertegün passed away, he gave an interview to a newspaper when he became the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in Washington D.C. He was portrayed as “a soft-voiced, modest philosopher, with a wise understanding of people and nations… something of a prophet” who “shines in a city of false prophecy.” The day after Pearl Harbor, he said to his friends, “My country will remain neutral.” He had ultimate faith in “the brotherhood of man”, which was in fact proven during his term as the Turkish Ambassador. “With this faith” Martin Luther King Jr said, “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” In the 1940’s, the Ertegün family transformed the jangling discords of the American society into beautiful jam sessions.
1- The Los Angeles Times, October 21, 1979.
2- The Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1941.
4- The Vidette-Messenger of Porter Country, April 15, 1944.