Receiving that letter, written in an impeccable English on yellow paper, will always remain in my memory as one of the sweetest moments I had.
It was 1985. A year before, I had been given the mission as the correspondent of the prestigious daily Cumhuriyet to cover Sweden, Finland – and later – Baltic countries. It had come as an honour to a young journalist who had just finished his studies in the School of Journalism in Stockholm. There was so much to write, particularly in the area of culture.
I had broader plans. The culture page of Cumhuriyet was highly respected, incomparable to others; yet its coverage of music was utterly conservative, limited only to classical music (the publisher, Nadir Nadi, was a amateur violin player, ‘incurably obsessed’ by Mozart and Beethoven). I knew, on the other hand, that I knew more than enough about popular forms, about rock, pop, and in particular, jazz, about which I was incurably in love. So, soon enough, I had come to an agreement with my editor, who felt that ‘the walls had to broken’ and had after a long battle managed to persuade the top editors that jazz, rock and tango demanded a place in the menu of the pages. It was, believe me, a revolution.
I did not waste time to write a letter asking for assistance to one of my heroes, Nesuhi Ertegun – an act on which I did not hope to get a response at all. Nesuhi Bey (Herr Nesuhi) as he was called, was the elder brother of another legend, Ahmet Ertegun, with whom they had built a music giant called Atlantic Records. At the timef of my letter, Nesuhi Bey was an executive who led WEA International, a figure that seemed unreachable.
You can imagine the bewilderment and joy when that yellow letter landed in my post box. In a very polite but warm manner he wished me good luck, adding that he had given directives to Atlantic/WEA branches in Europe to feed me with material and I could get a high chance to interview whoever I wished to from their incredibly rich palate.
Heaven! For the work that followed in Cumhuriyet, I will always remain to Nesuhi Bey, who every serious jazz musician in the USA remembers with the wish , ‘May God bless his soul.’
These days when almost every country reflects on what happens to ‘America we know’, its great culture that in post WW1 rewarded humanity with joy and hope, the extremely powerful story of these two brothers – and their father, Munir Ertegun – marks the beginning of the eight decades long love and hate relationship between the USA and Turkey. Born into a prominent Sufi family, father Ertegun – coeval to founding father of then repoublic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – had after Ottoman defeat in WW1 joined Atatürk in Ankara, and remained his most trusted diplomat, helping a finalization Lausanne Treaty in 1923.
Not unsurprisingly, following France and the UK, his final destination as ambassador was Washington DC, where he and the two young sons, 18 respectively 12 years old, was to serve between 1934 through 1944. So profoundly constructive and respected father Ertegun’s work to bring the USA and modern Turkey at that time was that his body was in a grand ceremony brought back to Istanbul by USS Missouri, a visit that marks the beginning of Turkish-American alliance, with Ankara ending its one-party rule, introducing pluralistic elections, entering the European political structures etc.
In a documentary, called ‘The House that Ahmet Built’, Ahmet Ertegün describes the joy when their father breaks the news of moving to America. ‘For us America was three things’ he tells. ‘Cowboys, Indians and Jazz’. They were in extacy, with an endless curiosity.
Already in 1935, Ahmet was the first one ever to ask for an autograph of a very young Ella Fitzgerald The influence of the two boys’ rapture over their father in DC was decisive. In an excellent biography on Ahmet Ertegün, titled ‘Last Sultan’, Robert Greenfield tells episodes on how the majestic Turkish Embassy in DC was from mid-1930’s on would turn into a Mekka of then segregated jazz musicians, who would spend long nights in jam sessions leaving the strict father Ertegun sleepless, cranky but tolerant. For nights on end, who jammed there is part of jazz history: Lester Young, Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges and most members of Duke Ellington Orchestra.
“Nesuhi and I made the most out of the extra-territorial situation offered by the embassy by inviting musicians who’d played in town the night before over for Sunday lunch,” Ahmet recalled in his 2001 book, “What’d I Say: The Atlantic Story.” “They all loved the idea of having lunch at an embassy, particularly one as well-appointed and in such grand surroundings as the Turkish embassy in Washington. After lunch, jam sessions would inevitably develop.”
“You can’t imagine how segregated Washington was at that time,” Nesuhi would tell the Washington Post in 1979.
“So we put on concerts…. Jazz was our weapon for social action.”
To Nesuhi Ertegun, watching Ellington’s band jamming at the mansion “was one of the biggest thrills of my life,” he told The Washington Post in 1979.
The music, he said, seemed to go over well with others, too.
“I remember once there was an embassy party, and I was having some musicians over at the same time. We were really getting kind of loud, and I was worried that maybe the people outside could hear us. At about that time, my father peered in and said, ‘Can you leave the door open? That music sounds awfully good!’
The invitations and ‘night traffic’ into the embassy inevitably caused tension. A congressman from Texas who wrote Ambassador Ertegun a letter expressing his shock to see ‘negroes’ walking in and out of the front doors of the embassy. The response he received from him is legendary. In equally blunt terms, Ertegün wrote to Congressman:
“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.”
The rest in history. Both politically and culturally. Ertegün brothers set sail to hand back the greatest treasure the USA has, namely black music in all forms, back to Americans, and jazz musicians were soon the most powerful ambassadors of of post WW2 culture, with a focal point on freedom. In 1956, at a legendary visit to Turkey, Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones meet a talented composer, with the name of Arif Mardin, who would make history as producer of who is who in soul and pop from sixties on. Dizzy also helped other Turkish jazz musicians, such as great trumpeter Maffy Falay – whose real name ‘Muaffak’ he did not find ‘appropriate’, as it associated with some heavy slang (!) – to advance into the European scene.
Like many Germans, many of us urban kids in Turkey in the 1950’s and 60’s grew up with those notes. It felt like oxygene for our dull existence, a source for daydreams; our soul food for change and rebellion. I am ever grateful for its role to keep me and many others to be enslaved by various types of dogma.
Yet, the image of America was soon to develop into a love and hate relationship for many. The contradiction lied inside the conditions of the Cold War, which led to a torment for the left in Turkey and Greece and Italy end elsewhere. The USA as ‘selling out’ human rights and blocking fair political competition by any means necessary in those geographies penetrated deep into the memory of the Left, an antipathy remaining incurable.
No matter what, the empire had until very recently managed to offer something that none of us could refuse. But, obviously, those times are over – a new era is on the rise, promising only ugliness, intolerance, bigotry, bullying, folly and icy isolation.
It is far more than what caused agony for the political Left worldwide: Trump-era emerging means tramping down on values that made America a great nation, it means that all the tones that inspired Ertegün brothers to the utopic ideas of a world united in hope and trust will only be a memory of an age that has gone. The white supremacist Congressman lectured decades ago by Münir Ertegün has crept back to power, calling shots, representing the worst in his country.
What I see in Turkey as elsewhere is rather clear: The storm of an immense anti-Americanism is building up on what already exists, and it is only the Americans themselves that can rescue the future by evoking their inherent fighting spirit. Our hearts will beat along with them.