This is the story of how compassion prevailed after a Turkish official and his family used music to fight racial oppression.
Protests are sweeping across the US and countries worldwide in the aftermath of the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer. Racism in the US didn’t end with the abolition of slavery. Instead, Black Americans face untold indignities even after the landmark Civil Rights Movement.
When Turkey’s ambassador to the US opened the doors of the Turkish embassy to black jazz musicians, Turkey found itself caught in the middle of US race relations.
At this point in American history, segregation was in full flow and Black Americans were not allowed to enter whites-only restaurants and were only allowed to sit at the back of public buses.
In 1934, when Munir Ertegun took on his assignment in the US as Turkey’s ambassador, Washington DC also happened to be a hub for jazz music in the country. In addition to this, Ertegun’s sons, Ahmet and Nesuhi, were big fans of the genre.
As a result of Turkey’s open-door diplomacy, jazz concerts started taking place in the Turkish embassy where black and white singers gathered and sang together. From Duke Ellington, Joe Marsala, Henry Allen, Adele Girar, and Zutty Singleton to Max Kaminsky and Tommy Potter would perform at concerts organised by Ertegun’s two sons.
The incident made a tremendous impact in the US and some celebrated the Turkish policy while many condemned it, including US politicians.
At the time, it was frowned upon for Blacks and whites to mix and some senators from the Southern US asked Munir Ertegun how he could be arranging such events.
In response, Ertegun said, “We take our guests in from the front door, whoever they are and we would be glad to host you as well if you decide to become our guests.”
Ahmet, his son, further elaborated: “We had a lot of black friends in Washington and we were not allowed to go to the cinema, theatre or restaurant together. Even stepping out together was almost impossible. Such that I was not able to take Duke Ellington, genius musician of his time, to dinner. It was the situation and we did not accept it.”
Ertegun’s other son, Nesuhi, stated that nobody could imagine what was happening in the US at the time in terms of discrimination and racism.
“Therefore, we organised concerts, Jazz was our social activity weapon,” he added.
Eventually, events took on a life of their own outside the confines of the Turkish embassy building.
In 1943, Ahmet and Nesuhi organised a concert at the Jewish Society Center in the capital. Black and white jazz musicians gathered together, an event that caught the attention of the media who said that two Muslim Turkish brothers were dividing views in Washington D.C. by mixing blacks, white Christians and Jews in a concert.
The birth of a label
Munir Ertegun was named Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in 1944 - a title conferred upon a member of the diplomatic corps that has served the longest in a country - until his death from a heart attack in the same year.
His sons stayed on in the US and in 1947, Ahmet founded Atlantic Records along with Herb Abramson in New York City. The label went on to change US music history, indeed one of the brand’s unique and main selling points for black artists, were the concerts that were held within the Turkish embassy. Nesuhi acted as a record producer and executive for the label.
It wasn’t a small affair. Atco and Cotillion were subsidiary labels, and Clarion was its budget version. Atlantic went on to record rhythm and blues, jazz, blues, country and western, rock and roll, gospel, and comedy.
The company still continues to operate today as part of Time-Warner, one of the few independent record companies that has survived since the 1940s. It has a large share of the world’s music market.
The story of the Turkish embassy opening its doors to Black musicians is a lesson in how solidarity can have a tangible impact on history. It is highly likely that a great number of artists that passed through the embassy in order to show off their talents, would have otherwise have never been discovered.
The creation of Atlantic Records demonstrates the possibility of operating outside the conventions of a time. Ultimately, it’s a story of success in the face of severe race oppression.
When Ahmet Ertegun passed away in 2006, he died having become one of the most prominent music figures of his time. Prior to his death, Ertegun said; “The roots of popular music all come from blacks’ music, from jazz.”
“If I even had a minor contribution to the promotion of African-American music and to the rise of its reputation, I would feel very happy,” Ertegun added.