Tuesday, May 01, 2012


Former scribe Kiki Ryan catches up on the news

by contributor Donna Shor
Photo credit: James Brantley

The Hill newspaper, chronicler of all things Congressional, held its party in the run-up to the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the handsome Turkish embassy on Sheridan Circle.

Politicians, press and DC embassy-goers mingled, enjoying Turkish cuisine and listening to the tale of how the building became a jazz center, told by the evening’s patron, Namik Tan, the Ambassador of Turkey.

Namik Tan, The Ambassador of Turkey (R)

Turkish Residence - Photo courtesy of
photo courtesy M.V. Jantzen

He spoke of Munir Ertegun who was the Ambassador of Turkey during the 1940's and his two young sons.  The three played a role that foreshadowed the breaking of old barriers in Washington, which considered itself a Southern city.

His sons, Ahmet and Nesuhi, were not only jazz fans, they were also “colorblind” in this segregated town. They began holding regular jazz sessions and were able to attract such stars as
Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly, Charlie Mingus, Meade Lux Lewis and Washington-born Duke Ellington who found it fun to jam with fellow musicians in the embassy’s music room.  

The combination of jazz and black musicians was a thing some of the more staid and segregationist Washingtonians found hard to handle, and during one night’s session, the police showed up at the embassy. When the ambassador, Munir Ertegun, went to meet them at the door, they quizzed him.

Was he planning, they asked, to have the “black people” exit by the front door?  "Indeed they would," he replied, "they would leave by the same door they came in."  He pointed out that he always had his friends enter his home by the front door, adding firmlly that if the police themselves needed to enter the embassy, they would of course, be using the back door. 

Ray Charles and Ahmet Ertegun - Photo Credit: Fred Prouser/Reuter

Both sons went on to become legends in the music industry. Nesuhi remained more behind the scene, but Ahmet Ertegun was famed as the founder of powerful Atlantic Records. The jazz-loving brothers also found and developed many of the best-known names in rhythm and blues, and later soul. The roster of stars championed by Atlantic was huge, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Bobby Darin, Otis Redding, The Drifters, Roberta Flack, Eric Clapton, The Coasters, John Coltrane, The Modern Jazz Quartet and Charlie Mingus.   

With that story, Namik Tan was clearly proud of his predecessor’s early role in acceptance of integration.

Interestingly, in earlier days, that same acoustically perfect music room drew musicians from a very different school.  Edward H. Everett had what is now the present embassy residence built as the Everett home. The music room was the joy of his wife, Grace Burnap,  an operatic soprano who often had visiting friends from New York’s Metropolitan Opera join her for more sedate concerts than the Ertegun’s. 

Guests mingled in the historic mansion

Actually, bottle caps built their home, because Mr. Everett invented the crimped
metal cap for Coca Cola, which, with other business interests, made him a very rich man.

The acclaimed architect George Oakley Totten designed the huge house using several styles, combining 16th century Italian, 18th century Romanesque and even 19th century Art Deco; they all work magnificently together.

In an odd coincidence, because Totten had traveled to the country, he even added traces of the Ottoman style to this building, which decades later would become the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey, after the Ottoman Empire fell.

In the embassy hall there is a bust of the legendary “strong man” of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, the father of the republic, who became President of Turkey in 1923. (“My first man,” the nine-times-married beauty Zsa Zsa Gabor―the great-aunt of the unbridled Paris Hilton― has always said, claiming innocence when they first met in Turkey, where they began a romance.)

During Black History Month this year, Namik Tan held the first jazz concert of a series of six planned to revive the Ertegun Jazz Concerts at the Embassy, in connection with Manhattan's Lincoln Center. The concerts will honor the Erteguns for promoting the acceptance of Jazz as an American music form, and for encouraging the integration of Washington.

This was one pre-WHCA party that gave you a lot to think about, thanks to The Hill.