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The Sound of Success

St. John’s College grad Ahmet Ertegün made good — very good

Annapolis has been the hangout of many famous people. William Paca. Charles Carroll. George Washington. Kevin Spacey. Barbara Kingsolver. Ahmet Ertegün.
    Your ears, at least, know Ahmet Ertegün by the lasting impact he made on American popular music. If you like Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, the Drifters, John Coltrane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and countless other musicians and bands, thank Ertegün.
    Cofounder of Atlantic Records with Herb Abramson in 1947, Ertegün had his hand on the pulse of America’s musical consciousness for more than 50 years, helping popularize R&B, jazz, doo-wop, rock and roll and even country. He knew what people would like and staked his money on what they would buy.
    What you may not know is that the young Turk — a man of peripatetic curiosity whose sense of history included his place in it — graduated from St. John’s College in 1944.
    In homage to Ertegün, St. John’s is celebrating 25 years of the Mitchell Gallery with An Ear for Music, an Eye for Art, 46 selections from Ahmet Ertegün’s collection of modern art.
From Turkey to Annapolis
    Ertegün, a native of Turkey, came to the United States via London where his father, Münir, was second ambassador of the young Turkish republic. Ahmet and older brother Nesuhi enjoyed their musician-mother Hayrunnisa’s jazz records. In London, the brothers saw Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, adding to Ahmet’s impressions of America — its vastness and excess, its cowboys and gangsters, but most especially its music.
    Münir became ambassador to the U.S. in 1935, and the family moved to D.C. The brothers hung out wherever black bands played — from Howard University to the Club Caverns — and hosted black bands at the ambassador’s residence.
    Attending St. John’s was one of the best decisions he ever made, Ertegün told St. John’s president Christopher Nelson on a visit in 2005 because he became “truly educated” by being exposed to ideas from the birth of Western civilization on.
    “And it seems to have prepared me to help create rock and roll out of the African American legacy of gospel and blues music,” he said.

Making Music
    At Atlantic Records, one of Ertegün’s strengths was letting musicians be themselves, prompting them to draw out what they were feeling through their music. Recall the scene in the 2004 biopic, Ray, in which Ray Charles sounds too much like Nat King Cole. Ertegün approaches Charles with one of his own compositions, Mess Around, and asks him to play it stride style. Only then does Charles’ growly, heaving signature sound emerge.
    As later partner Jerry Wexler said of Ertegün and Atlantic as a whole: They “let the music be heard.”
    Ertegün’s genius lay in “recognizing talent before its time” and being “unusually wise in understanding how to treat those well who had the talent,” says St. John’s Nelson. “He was
widely loved and respected within the industry.”
    Ertegün’s love for the music motivated him, he said in a documentary, to make records that would sell and stand the test of time.
    In an interview with Slate in 2005, the year before he died after falling at a Rolling Stones concert, Ertegün was asked what he wanted for his legacy.
    “I’d be happy if people said that I did a little bit to raise the dignity and recognition of the greatness of African-American music,” the 1987 Rock and Roll Hall of Famer said.
    He was also a genius in business, “building Atlantic Records from literally nothing into a giant,” Nelson said.

From Rock’s Riches to Art
    What to do with the wealth his success brought?
    Cofound a professional soccer team — the New York Cosmos — with your brother. And collect art.
    Art collecting was a romance of sorts, according to Mitchell Gallery art educator Lucinda Edinberg. Ertegün — along with Atlantic’s Sheldon Vogel, businessman Mario Santo Domingo and photographer Jean Pigozzi — targeted modern American artists. They bought paintings individually, but together amassed what became the Ertegün Associates Collection of 280 works. They stopped collecting in 1980 because none had time.
    A portion of that collection, on loan from the Baker Museum of Naples, Fla., is what you’ll see at the Mitchell Gallery, with paintings and drawings by Thomas Hart Benton, Albert Swinden, Ilya Bolotowsky, Hugh Breckenridge and A.E. Gallatin.
    Like the man whose name headlines the collection, most of the paintings are high energy. Looking at them, you may see the music in the interplay of color and shapes. Like Ertegün, the works are ahead of their time. Many look like they might be from the 1950s and ’60s, but they date from the 1910s, ’30s and ’40s. A few, including Oscar Bluemner’s 1912 Hackensack River, represent Precisionism, a movement unique to American modern art.
    In addition to art, Ertegün poured money into philanthropy. He established the Rhythm & Blues Foundation to help support underserved artists. He also funded a scholarship for Turks to study at St. John’s College.
    Nelson says that Ertegün had “a deep appreciation for Plato and understood that a state of happiness — mankind’s greatest goal — was ‘in leading a morally and ethically good life.’ He firmly believed that being a good person, developing the habits of right action, was more important than being a successful one.”
    He proved a person could be both successful and happy.

Showing thru April 19, Tu-Su, noon-5pm, plus F 6:45-7:45pm: Mitchell Gallery, St. John’s College, Annapolis: 410-626-2566.