Nesuhi Ertegun: Jazz Master

JT's editor-in-chief Lee Mergner introduces May issue with discussion of Nesuhi Ertegun's legacy

Recently I attended the opening of a new concert series at the residence of the Turkish Ambassador to the U.S. The series, co-sponsored by Boeing and produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center, is being held in the same room that brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun used to host informal jazz jams and concerts about 70 years ago in segregated Washington, D.C. From those humble beginnings as part-time jazz-party hosts, the Erteguns would go on to found Atlantic Records and change the face of American music in the 20th century, thanks to seminal recordings of artists like Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and Aretha Franklin (whose pre-Atlantic recordings are reviewed in this issue). Although the R&B-loving, deal-making and globe-trotting Ahmet became the more famous of the two brothers, it was Nesuhi who was the more serious jazz fan, and who was responsible for those landmark Atlantic Jazz albums of the ’60s. JazzTimes founder Ira Sabin always credited Nesuhi with supporting this magazine during its own humble beginnings as Radio Free Jazz. There is a reason that the Jazz Hall of Fame at Jazz at Lincoln Center is named for the older of the Ertegun brothers, who died in 1989.

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Nesuhi Ertegun
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Orrin Evans

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Festival impresario George Wein, who was lifelong friends with both men but particularly close to Nesuhi, says the elder Ertegun was never concerned with the limelight. “Nesuhi didn’t care to go to every function or mingle with big names,” says Wein. “He had a totally different personality. Both of them were great jazz fans, but Nesuhi was much deeper into what the current scene was about. He loved Mingus, Coltrane and Ornette and he respected what they were doing.” According to Wein, Nesuhi was an early and steady supporter of Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival and of Claude Nobs’ Montreux Jazz Festival. As you can see from the Festival Guide in this issue, jazz festivals now take place all over the globe, 12 months of the year, further affirming Nesuhi’s legacy.

Wein was there for the concert at the ambassador’s residence, partly in tribute to his late friend and partly because he wanted to pull the coattails of the event’s honorary host, Congressman John Conyers, about the proposed budget for the NEA, which eliminates the Jazz Masters Awards. Nat Hentoff, in his Final Chorus column, argues that all jazz fans, not just Wein, should be reaching out to Conyers and/or their local congressional representative about the dissolution of that essential NEA program. Hentoff, who was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2004, makes no secret of his anger and disappointment. But then again, he’s Nat Hentoff.

Performing at that first concert in the Ertegun series was Orrin Evans, whose Captain Black Big Band project is featured in this issue. A relative newcomer to the field of cultural diplomacy, Evans recently returned from a short tour in Dubai with saxophonist Wayne Escoffery. “That was amazing,” Evans reflects. “I had a ball. I met some very interesting people and played with musicians from all over. It is a different kind of thing in those settings. There’s another element: I’m representing.”

Representing the music is the sort of thing that the NEA Jazz Masters did over the last three decades. Let’s hope they continue as ambassadors for jazz, here and abroad.

Originally published in May 2011

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