How Did Jazz Find its Place in the Music Industry?

compiled by Dilek

This month, we will gather around Dixieland Jazz Trio, a popular local jazz band, to enjoy one of America’s most original art forms. Jazz originated among the African Americans in New Orleans in the late 19th century. United States was still a highly-segregated society back then. Being the soul of the “black music” at the time, jazz was only performed in private jam sessions in black districts up until 1950s.

Ahmet Ertegun and Ray Charles

Ahmet Ertegün and Ray Charles

It is interesting to note that many early jazz musicians were discovered and championed by three newcomers to the country.  In 1947, Ahmet Ertegün, the son of Turkish Ambassador to US (from 1934 to 1944), and Herb Abramson, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, founded a records company named Atlantic Records. Later, Ahmet’s brother Nesuhi joined them as producer.

Atlantic Records became a musical empire that redefined American rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and R&B. But in that early, racially charged environment, success was far from assured. Perhaps it took a sense of “otherness” to discover and build a business around a music different than the mainstream. 

Ahmet’s ambassador father, Munir Ertegün, was also very much intrigued by jazz music, and opened Turkish Embassy’s parlors to African American jazz musicians, who gathered there freely for concerts. That broke down many racial barriers in Washington, DC, and drew protests from powerful figures, including one Southern congressman who wrote the envoy a letter expressing his shock to see African Americans walking in and out of the front doors of the embassy.  There, in the 1930s and ’40s, jazz greats from Benny Carter to Lester Young played in private jam sessions that became the first integrated concerts.

While Ertegün brothers were drawn to DC’s vibrant music scene, its strict segregation drew their outrage. “You can’t imagine how segregated Washington was at that time,” Nesuhi Ertegün told the Washington Post in 1979. “So, we put on concerts…. Jazz was our weapon for social action.”

Atlantic Records helped jazz find its well-deserved place in the American and world music industry. Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Aretha Franklin are some of the music stars launched by Atlantic Records.  

Important Note: Did you know that black and white children went to school together as early as 1880s in Ann Arbor? Way to go, Ann Arbor!

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