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Turkish Embassy in D.C. Continues Tradition of Jazz

by Anna Gawel

Embassies are part of the fabric of Washington, D.C., though they often act more like window dressing — beautiful vessels that conduct the affairs of their homelands but rarely leave a lasting impression on the city itself.

Photos: Kyle Gustafson

Vocalist Michael Mwenso, joined by Joe Saylor on drums, Chris Pattishall on piano, and Chris Smith on bass, performs at the Turkish Embassy to kick of the 2013 season of the Ertegün Jazz Series.

But every once in a while, embassies shape the cities in which they reside — and the Turkish Embassy is home to a microcosm of D.C. history and lore.

There, in the 1930s and '40s, jazz greats from Benny Carter to Lester Young played in private jam sessions that became the first integrated concerts in what was then still a segregated city. Black and white musicians were welcomed to the ornate Sheridan Circle mansion by the Turkish ambassador and his two young sons: Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegün, who later founded Atlantic Records and produced jazz and R&B hits by the likes of Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin and others.

From left, Debbie Meadows, Congressman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Ambassador of Turkey Namik Tan and his wife Fugen Tan attend a concert at their embassy as part of the Ertegün Jazz Series, which pays homage to the interracially mixed jam sessions hosted by Turkish Ambassador Mehmet Munir Ertegün and his sons Nesuhi and Ahmet in the 1930s and '40s.

Today, Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan has cleverly resurrected this bit of local legend with the Ertegün Jazz Series. Organized in collaboration with the nonprofit group Jazz at Lincoln Center, the annual series of six concerts drew widespread media attention when it began in 2011.

On Feb. 26, Tan kicked off the program's third year with a concert by Sierra Leone native Michael Mwenso, who began singing and playing piano at the age of 11 shortly after moving to London.

From left, Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History John Gray, Cat Henry of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and John Hasse attend a concert organized by the Turkish Embassy in collaboration with the New York-based nonprofit Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Tan told guests gathered in the dimmed music room — set up with tables to resemble an intimate jazz club — that he timed the first concert in the 2013 series to take place during Black History Month. It also coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing U.S. slaves and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous march on Washington — "momentous events that changed the history of the United States," Tan noted.

The year 2013 is also important for Turkey, which will be hosting the International Istanbul Jazz Festival later this summer. The ambassador said the racially mixed concerts that took place in D.C. more than half a century ago are a tremendous source of pride for his nation.

"This home has always opened its doors to African Americans and played a small role in the history of African Americans," Tan said. "Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün broke down many barriers in Washington."

The brothers were serious music buffs who promoted concerts in the area after their father was named Turkey's ambassador to Washington in 1934.

From left, General Manager of Fleishman-Hillard DC Kris Balderston, Director of Diplomatic Relations at Coca-Cola Co. Kate Irvin, former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, and Paula Kougeas attend a jazz concert at the Turkish Embassy, sponsored by Coca-Cola.

While the brothers were drawn to the city's vibrant music scene, its strict segregation drew their outrage. "You can't imagine how segregated Washington was at that time," Nesuhi told the Washington Post in 1979. "So we put on concerts…. Jazz was our weapon for social action."

Of course, their father needed to be on board, and Tan praised the courage of Ambassador Mehmet Munir Ertegün for bucking convention and hosting the concerts — despite protests from powerful figures, including one Southern congressman who wrote the envoy a letter expressing his shock to see African Americans walking in and out of the front doors of the embassy.

Tan confessed that he wasn't sure he'd have the temerity to respond in the way Mehmet Munir Ertegün did. Tan told the audience of how Ertegün wrote the congressman back and said: "We always host our friends through our front door. These are our friends. If you come to our house, you are our guest but we'll make sure to get you in through the back door."

Mehmet Munir Ertegün clearly passed down that intrepid spirit to his sons. A PBS documentary of Ahmet Ertegün (1923-2006), parts of which were screened before the Feb. 26 concert, showed how Ahmet defied expectations to start one of the most iconic record labels in U.S. music history.

During his father's D.C. posting, Ahmet reveled in watching black entertainers such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong perform at the Howard Theater. He also rebelled against what he called the "senseless discrimination" of blacks, which he said reminded him of the way Turks were regarded in Europe because of their Muslim beliefs.

From left, former Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) and Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) join Ambassador of Turkey Namik Tan for the 2013 kickoff concert of the Ertegün Jazz Series, now in its third year.

Ahmet was arrested at age 17 for going to a jazz club in Annapolis, Md. When a cop told him he'd broken Jim Crow laws, he replied: "I don't consider that a law because it's not written anywhere."

His father and grandfather both served top positions in Turkey's Foreign Service, but Ahmet knew music would be his life's pursuit. In 1944, the year his father died, Ahmet, then 20, convinced his family dentist to invest $10,000 in his fledgling record label.

Atlantic Records became a musical empire that redefined American rock ‘n' roll, jazz and R&B. But in that early, racially charged environment, success for Ahmet or his older brother Nesuhi (who directed Atlantic's jazz division) was far from assured.

In the PBS documentary, Ahmet recalled using the pseudonym "Nugetre," his last name spelled backward, in case his venture flopped and he had to go into a life of civil service.

The persistent music mogul, who was still running Atlantic at the time of his death at age 83, joked that since his father and grandfather were both diplomats, "It probably would not have been good to have songs like ‘I want to rock you all night long' on my resume."

Posing for a group photo at the Turkish Embassy Feb. 26 jazz concert are, back row from left, band member Chris Pattishall, vocalist Michael Mwenso, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Turkish Embassy Timur Soylemez, Ambassador of Turkey Namik Tan, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook, Rep. Mark Meadows (D-N.C.), Debbie Meadows, drummer Joe Saylor, Fugen Tan, Carla Soylemez, and band member Chris Smith.

About the Author

Anna Gawel is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and a contributing writer for the Diplomatic Pouch.



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