On May 8, the Turkish Embassy welcomed Members of Congress, musical legends, and leaders of the African American community to celebrate the spirit of the late Ahmet Ertegun with the second installment of its 2012 Ertegun Jazz Series. In remembering Ertegun and his accomplishments, the Embassy also highlights its history of promoting jazz and its long-standing ties with the African American community.
Long before founding Atlantic Records, Ertegun, the son of Turkey’s second ambassador to the United States, came of age in Washington’s segregated jazz scene. He and his brother, Nesuhi, (who would go on to produce albums for the likes of Ray Charles, John Coltrane, and Roberta Flack) regularly frequented the historic Howard Theater, then the epicenter of black entertainment, to see Duke Ellington and other favorites perform.
As they grew up, the brothers began organizing their own jazz concerts at the Jewish Community Center, not only to promote the music they loved, but also to spur social change. The Jewish Community Center was one of the few places to allow blacks and whites to perform together, and the Ertegun brothers took full advantage of the venue’s unique status.
After performances, the brothers regularly invited musicians back to the embassy for dinners and jam sessions, and in the process, began a deep bond between the Turkish and African American communities. At that time, it was common for African-American’s to use the back door to gain entry to prominent buildings such as embassies. The Ertegun brothers disregarded this practice, and always welcomed musicians through the front door, drawing considerable criticism from a few senators at the time. After complaining to the boys’ father, Ambassador Mehmet Munir Ertegun, the senators were told that the embassy always welcomes friends through the front door. The ambassador added that the senators were also welcome at the embassy any time, but that they could use the back door.
In remembering Ahmet Ertegun and the incredible legacy he left behind, we also celebrate the decades-old relationship between Turkey and the African American community. Born of a shared love of jazz and nurtured through the hardships of segregation, this relationship continues to thrive today. The embassy and the legacy of Ahmet Ertegun will always remind us of this remarkable shared history.