Soon after landing in the US from Turkey, the Ertegun brothers helped to desegregate music during Jim Crow.
Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun arrived in the US in 1935. The two Turkish teenagers could not have possibly known the role they would play in both American popular culture and the fight against racial segregation, until one of the brothers established Atlantic Records, one of the most revolutionary record labels in 1947, launching the careers of famous artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin.
TRT World spoke to filmmaker Umran Safter for a new feature length documentary on the Ertegun Brothers, who left an indelible imprint on African-American music and culture.
TRT WORLD: Sultans of Jazz is a pretty intriguing title? What did you wish to convey by it?
UMRAN SAFTER: Sultans of Jazz was a working title. In the end, we opted to name the film “Leave The Door Open”. We chose Leave The Door Open because of an experience Nesuhi Ertegun recalls in an interview he gave to the Washington Post. He had some friends over for a jam session at the Turkish embassy residence. His father, the ambassador, was holding a formal event at the residence at the same time and Nesuhi feared being told off for making too much noise. The reaction he received instead was unexpected – something you will see in the film.
I also think Leave The Door Open in a way reflects Turkey’s current open-door policy towards refugees. It is through this policy that Turkey extends a helping hand to millions of refugees and migrants. The position of the Turkish ambassador in Washington all those years ago shows that such a welcoming nature is part of a deeper-rooted cultural trait. The Turkish Embassy by opening its doors to African-American musicians during that period had smashed a massive race barrier by embracing the unifying power of Jazz.
The story of the Ertegun Brothers is well known within African-American music history. What drew you to tell their story through the documentary format?
US: I read an article in an American publication a few years ago about the Ertegun brothers and was fascinated by their story. I started researching the topic in detail. It was a massive thing that the Ertegun brothers did in that period and the conditions that existed back then. It was practically unheard of that Black and White musicians could perform together to mixed audiences in the America of the 1930s and 1940s due to the levels of racism. And the two people who took this courageous step were the two young sons of the Turkish ambassador to Washington DC. I felt a feature-length documentary detailing various aspects of this incredible story would do it justice.
[NOTE: From 1940, the brothers began inviting jazz musicians they had seen play at the Howard Theatre on Saturdays to the US embassy to perform. These included musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, who were allowed to flout the social convention of the times by being allowed to enter through the front door and not the back. This was a sticking point for white American officials. Ahmet describes a conversation between his father and a Southern senator, who also happened to be a house neighbour. “My father would respond with a terse one-sentence reply such as “In my home, friends enter by the front door - however, we can arrange for you to enter from the back”. But they didn’t stop there. The Erteguns launched the city’s first integrated concert in 1942 at the Jewish Community Center based on 16th street. And they didn’t stop there. They also went onto to organise the National Press Club’s first integrated event, a concert that featured folk and blues artist Lead Belly.]
The story of how their father invited Black musicians to the US embassy was a bold move. Where did you think their determination to cross colour lines came from?
US: Ambassador Mehmet Munir Ertegun was an educated diplomat who was raised in a multicultural Istanbul. His children also grew up in very multicultural settings in various parts of the world owing to their father’s work. Racial discrimination was totally unacceptable for Ambassador Mehmet Munir Ertegun and his family. In the film, the ambassador’s daughter, Selma Ertegun Goksel , recalls an incident where White staff at the Turkish Embassy in Washington told the ambassador they would not sit at the same table with Black staff for meals and wanted segregated seating. The ambassador rejected their demand without hesitation. This incident led to Nesuhi and Ahmet being more comfortable while inviting African-American musicians to the residence.
[NOTE: When their father died in 1944, Ahmet and Nesuhi chose to remain in the US. While Nesuhi briefly moved to Los Angeles to open up a record shop and company, Ahmet moved to New York in 1947 where he worked at a local record store owned by his friends, his future business partners Herb and Mariam Abramson. Here he learned about the music retail industry while studying at Georgetown University. Nesuhi eventually joined his brother in New York. After a few failed attempts in running a successful music label, the Erteguns and Abramsons acquired a $10,000 loan from a family friend to establish Atlantic Records in 1947. While his brother Ahmet ran executive affairs, Nesuhi also produced a number of successful jazz records with the likes of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and the Modern Jazz Quartet. And later on started his own distributing company and jazz label .The company mainly put out what was then known as ‘race music’, a term used to describe all types of African-American music . Over the decades, the company evolved its musical portfolio over the decades to include rap, pop, rock and R&B. Their investment in various musical genres has been dubbed ‘The Ahmet Factor’ and has been regarded as an important blueprint for subsequent record labels.]
Is the Ertegun Brothers' proximity to 'whiteness' explored in the film, and how important do you think it was for them to be able to navigate the music industry?
US: The defining aspect of the Ertegun brothers is that they were color blind and their total love for Jazz. The way they went about setting up and running Atlantic Records was a game-changer for the recording industry because they refused to view their artists as mere commodities to be profited from.
Though the Ertegun Brother’s irrefutably helped open up a world of possibility for many African-American musicians during Jim Crow, some say it is difficult to ignore how their position as cultural intermediaries sits uncomfortably in conversations around cultural appropriation and the fight for Black people to own their own cultural institutions.
Historically, accusations have been labelled against the music industry for cultural appropriation of Black music and culture. Did the Ertegun Brothers face these accusations?
US: We have people in the film speaking about how the Ertegun brothers changed the music industry as well. For instance here is one quote from the film: “They broke ground in the recording industry by doing the same things they did with the jam sessions informally in the embassy. They got the top performers but not just on a business level… they befriended them …they showed them respect, which wasn't always happening in the recording industry”.
They did not look at these musicians as simply a commodity to be sold. They really respected them as artists and I think that was one of the reasons Atlantic Records became so powerful. It became one of the record labels that really focused on the art and really cared about doing the best that they could for the artists.
What do you think their overriding legacy is and how does the documentary convey this?
US: I think the biggest legacy that Ahmet and Nesuhi leave is that they proved that prejudice of any kind has no way of succeeding in the face of the multicultural nature of music when people are willing to be courageous and stand up for what they believe in. There is no reason why we can’t make use of the universal and unifying nature of music if two young brothers were able to defeat such entrenched prejudice back then. I also think the Ertegun brothers and their family through their actions strengthened both the US-Turkish cultural bond and created a deep-rooted friendship between Turkey and the African-American community.