Ethel Ennis, Baltimore’s “first lady of jazz” who during her seven-decade career performed with such musical luminaries as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, the Miles Davis-John Coltrane Sextet and Wynton Marsalis, and thrilled audiences at the Newport and Monterey jazz festivals, died Feb. 17 at her home in Baltimore. She was 86.
She had complications from a stroke, said her husband, Earl Arnett.
Ms. Ennis spent almost her entire career in Baltimore, becoming a beloved local singer whose talents were admired by such performers as Ellington and her fellow Baltimorean Billie Holiday.
Ms. Ennis released her first album, “Lullabies for Losers,” in 1955, earning a national following and a midnight call from Holiday.
“She told Ethel she was a great singer and could tell that she didn’t fake it, that she was the real deal, and one day would be famous,” Arnett recalled.
In 1958, Ms. Ennis joined Goodman’s band and embarked on a European tour organized by the U.S. State Department billed as “jazz diplomacy.”
“Everywhere they appeared, Ethel Ennis was a huge success,” Liz Fixsen wrote in a profile of Ennis published in the 2010 book “Music at the Crossroads: Lives & Legacies of Baltimore Jazz.” “Baltimoreans were filled with pride at the spectacular rise of one of their own, and fully expected Ethel’s career to continue its path toward the highest peaks of stardom.”
After Ms. Ennis’s agent landed an RCA Victor recording contract in the early 1960s, fame was seemingly in her grasp, but it would have come with two conditions: She would have to leave Baltimore, and RCA would control her appearances.
“You were supposed to be seen with all of the right people, the movers and the shakers,” Ms. Ennis explained in a 1998 Baltimore Sun interview. “The agent said, ‘You don’t want to be a star. You want to be a semi-star.’ I said, ‘Okay. I’ll be a semi-star.’ I did have determination, but I don’t think you have to go against your grain.”
While living in Baltimore, Ms. Ennis continued to work steadily with the jazz greats of the day while making appearances on such national TV shows as “The Bell Telephone Hour” and “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends.” She was a showstopper at the 1964 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island and, a year later, at the Monterey Jazz Festival in California. In the 1970s, she played Ethel Earphone, an animated character, on Maryland Public Television’s “Book, Look and Listen.”
“Ethel could do what the really great singers do, and that is inhabiting a song and making it her own in a very special way,” Andy Bienstock, a jazz scholar and radio host, told the Sun. “She did everything on her own terms, and that may have kept her from becoming a household name.”
Ethel Llewellyn Ennis was born Nov. 28, 1932, in Baltimore. Her father was a barber, and her mother was a homemaker who played piano in church.
“I came from a rather conservative background,” Ms. Ennis told the Sun in 1998. “Jazz and blues were forbidden.”
She studied piano and became a church pianist. By her teens, Ms. Ennis had discovered popular rhythm-and-blues music, which didn’t please her family. They thought it a passing phase.
She joined a group of young jazz musicians, Riley’s Octet, as a pianist. “I was much too young to play in clubs, so we played in places like VFW and fellowship halls where my age was accepted,” she said.
The first time she sang in public was as a 15-year-old, when an audience member promised her a $5 tip if she sang “In the Dark.”
“Her angelic, full-throated singing brought the house down,” John Lewis wrote in Baltimore magazine in 2011. “The crowd demanded encores, and, from then on, she was a vocalist.”
After high school, Ms. Ennis sang in strip clubs and truckers’ bars before landing an engagement at Baltimore’s Red Fox jazz club in 1954. She stayed for nine years.
She won acclaim for her a cappella rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Richard M. Nixon’s presidential inauguration in 1973. After returning to her Baltimore home that afternoon, she later said, she busied herself cleaning out her refrigerator. In 1984, she and her husband opened “Ethel’s Place,” an upscale Baltimore jazz club that featured local and national acts. It closed in 1988.
Her final recording, “Ennis Anyone?” was released in 2005, and her last performance was in 2016 at the Montpelier Arts Center in Prince George’s County.
Her first marriage, to lawyer Jack Leeds, ended in divorce. Survivors include her husband of 51 years, journalist and writer Earl Arnett; and a brother, saxophonist Andy Ennis, who played in Ray Charles’s band for 10 years.
“My grandmother always emphasized ‘being a lady,’ ” Ms. Ennis told the Sun. “So, I’ve been a lady singing the blues in these bars forever.”
— Baltimore Sun
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