There was a moment in 1965 when Ethel Ennis looked like the next big female vocalist in jazz. Ennis, who died Sunday (Feb. 17) at her Baltimore, Md., home of complications from a stroke, had a record contract with RCA, and she’d already performed with the likes of Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. She had a lustrous soprano and a nimble way around a lyric and a scat solo.
The stardom never came, and Ennis never regretted it. She gave up the international career and settled into her role as the jazz queen of her hometown, Baltimore. She continued to perform into her early eighties (she was 86 when she died). True, she never achieved the fame of fellow Baltimorean Billie Holiday, but she never suffered through drug addiction and bad marriages either. Who’s to say that’s a bad choice?
“I don’t like the way the music business is set up,” she told me in 2005. “You have to give up a whole lot for that prize and it isn’t worth it. It’s not like they’re going to nurture the individuality of your talent; they’re going to fit you into a slot they already have. It didn’t appeal to me, and it still doesn’t. So I took a step back to think about it. Meanwhile, they said, ‘Next.’”
Born on Nov. 28, 1932, Ennis grew up in West Baltimore’s Gilmor Homes in the ’30s and ’40s, back when housing projects were new and desirable. It was a breeding ground for such musicians as guitarist O’Donel Levy, keyboardist Charles Covington, and drummer Chester Thompson. Ennis herself took piano lessons so she could play at the Ames United Methodist Church. But she could also hear the project’s house parties, where the latest blues records were cranked up loud.
At 15, she started playing Baltimore clubs as a singer and pianist, eventually establishing herself at the Red Fox on the city’s African-American entertainment strip along Pennsylvania Avenue. George Fox got her a deal with New York’s Jubilee Records, and she released her 1955 debut, Lullabies for Losers, with backing by Hank Jones and Kenny Clarke.
“I had heard,” Ennis said in 2001, “that Billie Holiday had asked one of her friends, ‘Who’s this new bitch from Baltimore?’ Then one night, when I’m sleeping in my bed on Druid Hill, the phone rings at three in the morning and it’s Shery Baker, this hairdresser I knew in Baltimore. Shery says, ‘I’m in New York and I’ve got Billie Holiday on the line.’ I say, ‘Yeah, right,’ and hand the phone to my husband. He says, ‘It really is Billie Holiday,’ and hands me back the phone.”
At this point, Ennis mimed her own groggy sleepiness and then impersonated Holiday’s famous rasp. “I like your voice,” Holiday told her. “You’re a musician’s musician; you don’t fake. Stay with it, and you’ll be famous.” Ennis giggles, and then adds, “I thought that was strange, because I had never even thought about becoming famous.”
Nonetheless it seemed that fame would soon find her. The Jubilee disc led to two albums with Capitol, 1957’s Change of Scenery and 1958’s Have You Forgotten? Benny Goodman, who had played on Holiday’s first recording, hired Ennis as his female singer (Jimmy Rushing was the male singer) for a 1958 tour of Europe; tapes of her performances were finally released in 1989 as Goodman’s Big Band in Europe.
Ella Fitzgerald cited Ennis as her favorite young singer, and the voters in the Playboy Jazz Poll named her the Best Female Singer of 1961. In 1964 and ’65, Ennis released four full-length albums for RCA, played the Newport Jazz Festival with the Billy Taylor Trio, sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra on network TV, and began an eight-year run on The Arthur Godfrey Show. Frank Sinatra called her “my kind of singer.” She was on the cusp of major success. But that was as far as it went.
“They had it all planned out for me,” she continued. “‘Go here and have your picture taken.’ ‘Go to a choreographer.’ That was a disaster. ‘Go to the right parties.’ I’d ask, ‘When do I sing?’ and they’d say, ‘Shut up and have a drink.’ ‘You should sit like this and look like that and play the game of bed partners.’ You really had to do things that go against your grain for gain. I wouldn’t.”
Instead, she met a Baltimore Sun reporter named Earl Arnett, who came to interview her and, instead of writing the story, married her. They defied Maryland’s miscegenation laws in 1967, bought a house behind Mondawmin Mall, and lived in it from that year to this. (Arnett survives her, as does her brother Andrew Ennis and various nephews, nieces, and cousins.) The couple ran a jazz club called Ethel’s Place near the Baltimore Symphony’s Meyerhoff Hall from 1984 to 1988. She played a few dozen gigs every year in the mid-Atlantic region and released an album every five years or so. It was a comfortable life, and she was happy with it.
“I have no regrets,” Ennis told me. “I’d do the same thing again. I’m trying to respect the gift I do have and not worry about the prize. There’s a difference between ambition and determination: Ambition is when you’ll do whatever they ask; determination is when you’ll do what you want no matter what.”