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It All Began One Night Near U Street
How a Turkish Boy Learned To Love Jazz in Washington

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Strange paths lead people to hear jazz live. Even young innocents aren't safe in their beds. A boy from Turkey heard the siren song when he was 12, at an hour when he should have been asleep.

In a telephone conversation a few years ago Ahmet Ertegun, who died on Dec. 14, recalled to me that childhood conversion.

It was 1935. Ertegun, son of the Turkish ambassador, was still new to the United States and to Washington, but he knew he liked Cab Calloway.

As he lay in bed one night, listening to the radio, the deejay announced that Calloway was playing that night at a club nearby.

"I was put to bed by 10 o'clock," Ertegun recalled. "They used to have late-night pickup concerts of orchestras, and they said that Cab Calloway was playing in Washington. So I ran to my father's living room, where he was talking with the first secretary of the embassy. And I said I wanted to go to hear Cab Calloway live."

He breathed that last word with excitement.

His father, the ambassador, reacted as any parent would. "No, you go back to bed!" he told the boy.

But Ahmet persisted and found an ally in the embassy secretary, who wanted to hear the band himself. The two of them reached an outdoor club near U Street NW at about midnight. Cab Calloway's orchestra took the stage, and Ahmet was awed: "He had such an incredibly great band."

That night opened the boy's eyes to the city's social divisions as well, to the reality of segregation. For years, he would return to U Street to hear the authentic jazz that he loved, and that he would later nurture as co-founder of Atlantic Records.

By age 14, he and his brother, Nesuhi, were hunting for records all over town, frustrated by the milquetoast selection in stores downtown. "I had to go to the black section of Washington for the shops that sold records of the music we wanted to buy."

An embassy driver would take the boys to a radio repair shop that sold used records. "We had the chauffeur wait outside," Ertegun said with a chuckle. "We'd go in and go through thousands of old records that they had there for sale. They were on sale for a dime apiece, or three for a quarter. We'd thumb through all the records and find jazz rarities."

That shop near the corner of Seventh and T streets NW was owned by Max Silverman, whose shop eventually became Waxie Maxie. Like other record stores then, it had listening booths. There Ertegun would run into Billy Taylor, the erudite son of a Washington dentist who is now an artistic adviser to the Kennedy Center.

The Ertegun brothers also went door to door near U Street, asking people if they had old records to sell. The recordings led them back to live jazz gigs.

"I went to the Howard Theater almost every week to hear the great orchestras," Ertegun recalled -- everyone from Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Lunceford and Fats Waller to the Kansas City group that featured pianist Mary Lou Williams.

Escorted by Silverman, Ahmet also visited the clubs: Bengasi, the Casbah, the Crystal Caverns (now Bohemian Caverns).

The boyhood experiences in the clubs and record shops of Washington, Ertegun said, "molded my understanding of black American music very strongly. That really put a perspective on the direction of music and the importance of black music."

A few minutes after we hung up, he called back. He had one more D.C. memory to offer, involving Griffith Stadium, home of the Washington Senators, where Ellington had sold peanuts as a boy. In 1943 or '44, Ertegun went there with Charlie Parker to watch a ballgame.

"The Washington Senators, unfortunately, could never fill the stadium," he told me. "They weren't doing so well. But Sister Rosetta Tharpe could pack that place to the rafters."

-- David A. Taylor

Alexandria

David Taylor is an author, freelance writer and

documentary filmmaker. His e-mail address is dataylor@igc.org

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