As teenagers, Ahmet and Nesuhi were smitten by jazz when they heard Duke Ellington play in London and were excited about moving to his hometown. But when they arrived, they were disappointed to find how racially segregated the city was. “When I first came to Washington, the stores downtown didn’t carry any jazz records or blues records,” Ahmet said in a 2002 interview. “I had to go to the Black section of Washington for the shops that sold records of the music we wanted to buy.”
He visited jazz clubs on U Street and record shops on Seventh Street, and became a regular at Waxie Maxie, the music shop owned by Max Silverman, who built the store into a leading music retail chain. There, Ertegun found other jazz fans, such as Washington Post photographer and reporter Bill Gottlieb, later a writer for the influential Down Beat music magazine, and Billy Taylor, who would go on to become a bandleader and for decades directed jazz at the Kennedy Center.
Safter, 51, had read about the jazz concerts the Erteguns organized at the embassy. “It’s a great story. I said to myself, ‘Let’s do this story as a documentary.’ ” For the film (working title: “Leave the Door Open”), she tracked down everyone she could find who knew them. In New York, she spoke with Atlantic Records colleague Bob Porter as well as Renee Pappas, ex-wife of Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler. Pappas had been friends with both brothers and had vivid stories. (Nesuhi Ertegun died in 1989; Ahmet, in 2006.)
Safter and her small crew arrived in Washington in February 2020 for filming. Everett House in Sheridan Circle — which served as the embassy during the Erteguns’ era in D.C., and is now the residence of the Turkish ambassador — opened its doors to them. Safter also had sit-down interviews with jazz historians and radio DJs Willard Jenkins and Larry Appelbaum. And she interviewed people who had interviewed Ahmet (including me).
She pieced together a story of race in Washington, exploring how the Erteguns cracked barriers in segregation and the blowback they faced. When they invited Black musicians to Sheridan Circle, the ambassador got complaints from White neighbors. “They were saying, ‘Oh, the music coming from the embassy is so disturbing!’ ” Pappas told Safter. “ ‘Who are these people?’ ”
The ambassador, opting for diplomacy, replied: “My sons are studying anthropology. That’s why they have all these people coming.” Still, he was stunned when the embassy’s White staff balked at eating meals at the same table as Black staff members. As his daughter Selma explained to Safter, segregation “was not something we were used to.”
The stories and images create a complex portrait of 1940s Washington. Historian Maurice Jackson described to Safter an Ertegun-organized concert at the Jewish community center: “Two Muslim brothers bringing Black music to the center belonging to our Jewish brothers and sisters. This is historic.”
While in D.C. last year, Safter had planned to film a concert in the Ertegun Jazz Series at the Turkish Embassy, but it was canceled because of political events in Turkey. However, the crew filmed a jazz concert at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest Washington. They returned home just ahead of covid-19 travel restrictions. Passengers on their flight to Istanbul were already wearing masks.
Safter counts herself lucky that her crew managed to complete most of the filming before the pandemic lockdown. But work on the documentary dragged. “It’s not possible to meet with the rest of my crew,” she explained in April. “And the main challenge is I can’t sit next to my editor.” She was working with Ömer Leventoglu, who edited her 2019 film “On the Wings of Hope,” about Iraqi Kurdish refugees. “He’s a great editor,” she said, but they could talk only by Skype or WhatsApp.
Eventually during the summer they cobbled together a new editing process and went into postproduction in September. Now with a rough cut, Safter hopes to have a finished film very soon.
But other hurdles loom, including financing and distribution. Movie theaters remain closed. “This is a very difficult time for filmmakers,” Safter says. In darker moments, she thinks back to her D.C. premiere five years ago.
“Because it was my first feature-length documentary film,” she recalls, “it encouraged me. That’s the reason I produced the second film.” She has submitted a rough cut of her new film to several U.S. competitions, including the DC Independent Film Festival and FilmFest DC. She hopes she will be able to return to the city that gave her that first boost.
David A. Taylor is a writer in Washington