* article edited on November 21, 2012
When the Turkish Embassy first announced that it had partnered with Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Boeing Company to form the Ertegün Jazz Series back in February 2011, the Series was said to be a vehicle for showcasing artists whose talents temporarily exceeded their fame. Orrin Evans, Helen Sung, Warren Wolf, Tia Fuller, Marcus Strickland and Gretchen Parlato were the selected few who helped make the six-concert inaugural season a great success. The Series’ ability to highlight the unifying effect jazz has had on cultures and communities turned out to be an added bonus. No one exemplified that effect more than the Series’ namesake: Ahmet Ertegün.
During his father’s tenure as the Turkish Ambassador (1934-1944), Ahmet and his older brother Nesuhi hosted jam sessions in the music room of the Turkish Embassy Residence—the same site where the Ertegün Jazz Series concerts are currently held. Jazz greats such as John Malachi, Barney Bigard and Teddy Wilson were among the musicians welcomed through the front doors of the Residence. This is particularly significant considering the times—breaking Jim Crow “SEPARATE but equal” laws were punishable offenses. And during Tuesday night’s introduction, Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan reminded the invitation only crowd of dignitaries and politicians that he had shared details of the Ertegüns’ experiences welcoming African American jazz musicians through the front doors of the Residence during those racially volatile times at the start of all of the previous Series performances, so he skipped sharing the story this time around. Instead, Ambassador Tan reminded audiences about something more pertinent to Turkey— that UNESCO’s Director General, Ms. Irina Bokova, made the announcement at the recent Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition that Istanbul, Turkey was selected to host the Second International Jazz Day in April 2013. Making that announcement in the same space that the Ertegün family used to pay homage to jazz music and jazz musicians almost felt as if jazz was giving the country of Turkey the thank you that the Ertegün’s weren’t present to receive.
Since resurfacing in February 2012 with a new partner, the Coca Cola Company took over the sponsorship role, the Series shifted its focus away from highlighting the talents of up and coming artists to simply creating a space for audiences to enjoy the music. Roy Hargrove and Jonathan Batiste, whose riveting performance turned the Embassy Residence into a high-end juke joint, ushered the Series into 2012. But Tuesday night (October 2, 2012) represented a first for the Series: with the exception of Baltimore native Wolf, no local artist has been included as a featured performer until Tuesday night’s concert.
After Ambassador Tan presented her to the crowd, vocalist Akua (pronounced Ah-kwee-ya) Allrich made her way to the Embassy stage like a queen approaching her throne. Her megawatt smile served as an unspoken introduction; it was clear that joy radiated from deep inside her and her voice journeyed from that space. Opening the set with Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” Allrich—who was joined on stage by pianist Janelle Gill (who also sat in with Wolf during his performance), bassist Kris Funn, drummer Kush Abadey and saxophonist Brian Settles—didn’t waste any time warming the crowd up as she coyly noted afterward. She stepped to the microphone with a purpose… “dream of a land, my soul is from/I hear a hand, stroke on a drum.” The significance of the moment was not lost on Allrich: she, and all that she embodied, was standing in the music room of the Turkish Embassy Residence as an ambassador of jazz. Beautiful.
Allrich performed music made famous by the likes of Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan in addition to a self-penned composition that gave Allrich an opportunity to highlight her ability to tell a story through song using her own work. The crowd followed along to Allrich’s performance with the same spirit and energy that she brought to the stage. The usually reserved and polished Turkish Counselor Can Oğuz seemed to be having the time of his life as he hooted along enthusiastically throughout Allrich’s performance. Politicians seated in the front of the house engaged Allrich with nods of approval and the occasional shout of “yeah” or “uh huh”. It was a fun show that left everyone talking by shows end.
The next Ertegün Jazz Series performance is scheduled for December. While it’s safe to assume that the show is something to look forward to, the crowd will always remember the time DC Jazz had its night.