Jazz Returns to Turkish Ambassador’s Residence in Washington, DC

The Ertegun Jazz Series sponsored by Boeing and Jazz at Lincoln Center to feature acoustic jazz from emerging artists

Nesuhi Ertegun image 0

Nesuhi Ertegun

Over 70 years ago, two young men from Turkey decided to put on some shows at their parents’ house in Washington, DC, featuring some of their favorite jazz musicians. Members from the bands of Duke Ellington or Count Basie would come by to jam after their gig at the local theater or club. These “house concerts” caused a bit of a stir in the still segregated city, one that has always had one foot above and one foot below the Mason-Dixon Line. The catch was that this wasn’t just any house. The jazz jams were taking place in the home of the then Turkish Ambassador, Munir Ertegun. Score one for diplomatic immunity.

The two ambitious and jazz-loving sons, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, eventually moved away from DC and applied their entrepreneurial talents to a wider stage. The siblings went on to NYC where they founded Atlantic Records and dramatically altered the face of American popular music. Although Ahmet was the visionary behind the label and became famous for his professional and personal relationships with everyone from Ray Charles to Mick Jagger, it was Nesuhi Ertegun who would remain the passionate jazz lover for the rest of his life. The seminal ’60s jazz albums from John Coltrane, Les McCann and Eddie Harris, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Ornette Coleman were a direct result of Nesuhi’s stewardship of the jazz department at Atlantic.

Now, thanks to a partnership between the Turkish Embassy, Jazz at Lincoln Center and Boeing, jazz is returning to the Ambassador of Turkey’s residence. Boeing is sponsoring a six-part concert series in the exact same room that the Ertegun brothers first presented jazz jams back in the ’30s and ’40s. The first concert will feature the Orrin Evans Trio (pianist Evans, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Donald Edward) on March 1. Pianist Helen Sung will perform with her quartet (with John Ellis on tenor and soprano saxophones, Ben Williams on bass, Kendrick Scott on drums) on April 12. Future performers for the rest of the year will be announced in the coming months.

The series is being programmed by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Cat Henry, associate director at JALC, said that their approach will be to spotlight emerging artists who best represent the type of cultural exchange that their organization has promoted over the years, through its artistic director Wynton Marsalis (a one-man jazz ambassador program) and its Rhythm Road project. Interestingly, there are no immediate plans to include Turkish jazz musicians, but Henry said that she’s not ruling it out. She said that she also intends to feature jazz artists from the Washington, DC area and expects to announce the next few concerts in the series soon.

Both Evans and Sung were largely unaware of the history behind the series. However, both have had extensive experience doing cultural exchange trips and performances. Evans recently returned from a short tour in Dubai with Wayne Escoffery. “That was amazing,” Evans said. “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. I really enjoy doing those cultural ambassador performances.” Evans also went on an educational and cultural exchange trip to Cuba in 2010 as a representative of the Philadelphia Music Project.

Sung was part of The Rhythm Road project in 2009, when she traveled to southern Africa for performances and workshops over the course of a month. “First of all, it was a real honor, because they did teach us a history and lineage back to when it was the ‘Jazz Ambassadors’ program with Louis Armstong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck,” explained the pianist. “I realized that I was part of all of that. Also, I think Jazz at Lincoln Center has done a great job with the program. They emphasize interaction with local artists and students.”

Sung recalled the first festival she did with her group was in Zimbabwe where there had been significant civil unrest in the preceding year. “It was really a galvanizing thing for that country-that things weren’t in total chaos. Artists came from all over the world in all genres and art forms. It was inspiring.” Sung also did workshops at the local townships and schools and was inspired by that experience as well. “To do workshops at the local townships and local schools was really exciting,” she said. “The kids were so talented and they just lacked resources, that anything I could do on their behalf, I would be happy to do.”

The room itself for the Ertegun series is on the second floor of the Ambassador’s residence, an old but elegant mansion located in the Sheridan Square area of Washington, DC, immediately adjacent to Massachusetts Avenue, known to locals as Embassy Row. With a capacity of around 100, the room’s high ceilings and plush wall and floor coverings give the venue a naturally clean acoustic sound. There is a recessed stage with a Steinway piano. In fact, Henry said that the artists will perform without a sound system.

Evans said that he welcomes that sort of set-up. “To be honest, I like the truly acoustic environment, even with a horn player,” said Evans. “I just did a duo thing yesterday with [saxophonist] Wayne Escoffery in New York City.” Sung agreed. “It’s just a matter of getting ourselves acclimated to the space and working with it,” said the pianist. “There’s a challenge to playing acoustic that I really like. I never like it when I hear the band through the monitor. It feels like it’s coming from a place I don’t expect. With an all-acoustic environment, we have to listen differently and to mesh differently. The range of sound is bigger when you play acoustically. You can get real soft and you can bash too, which is fun.”

At the press conference, Namik Tan-the current ambassador-talked about the history behind the house and its role in breaking down the walls of segregation in the nation’s capital. Ambassador Tan said that one of the concerts presented by the young Erteguns in 1940 was the first integrated jazz show in Washington, DC. He also told a story about how, after one show, the local police came to the door of the residence to ask the owners if black people were coming through the front door. Munir Ertegun, then Turkish Ambassador to the U.S., informed the police that in fact blacks (musicians and listeners) had entered through the front door. Ertegun explained politely but firmly that it is customary in Turkey for friends to come through the front door, but if the police would prefer, they were welcome to enter through the back.

Tan also told the press assembled that, in the spirit of the Ertegun brothers, the performances would be open to anyone, although it was clear that they hadn’t worked out those arrangements because, at least for now, the free series is by invitation only. For more information about the Turkish Embassy and its cultural events, you can visit its website.