An Ear-Shattering, Life-Changing Experience
Nine years old and barely able to speak English, Ahmet was wearing a beret as he stepped off the train from Paris with his family in London and immediately got into a fight with “a couple of ruffians who were hanging around the railway station.” Swept up into a rarefied life of luxury and privilege in a country where the class system was still in place, he would have no further contact with anyone from the street in England. In a city where the fog was often still so thick his mother panicked one day when she let go of his hand for a moment only to lose sight of him, Ahmet’s childhood soon became far more structured than before. In no small part this was due to the heightened nature of his mother’s social life.
After Mehmet Munir presented his credentials to the Court of St. James’s on July 23, 1932, he and his wife were invited to dine with King George V and Queen Mary. Fearing she might lose her balance as she was introduced to the queen, Ahmet’s mother, who was overweight at the time, carefully practiced her curtsy before going out that night. When she called upon the Duchess of York, the mother of the future Queen Elizabeth II, the two women discussed their daughters, both of whom were about the same age.
Ahmet and Nesuhi were sent to school at the French Lycée in Cromwell Gardens in South Kensington. In the Turkish ambassador’s residence at 69 Portland Place in Marylebone, Ahmet and his sister ate their meals separately from their parents, whom “they hardly ever saw.” Their new governess, Miss Whittingham, who “was very British and very strict,” had previously looked after the Duke and Duchess of York’s daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and so made Ahmet and Selma dress each night for dinner.
“We wore our party clothes and Miss Whittingham wore evening gowns, rose or yellow chiffon dresses with matching satin shoes,” Ahmet’s sister would later say. “We had dinner in the dining room but at a much earlier time than our parents. In accordance with Miss Whittingham’s rules of etiquette, I led the procession into the dining room with Miss Whittingham behind me and Ahmet third and last. I don’t know how we did it but we were even taught how to eat grapes with a knife and fork.”
In London, Selma first realized her brother “was interested in women from an early age.” When their new governess wanted to undress both children so she could put them to bed, six-year-old Selma refused to let her do so but “Ahmet just sort of left himself in her hands and threw himself at her. He wanted her to undress him.”
Ahmet was ten years old when Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, “the King of Jazz,” came to London for the first time on June 12, 1933, to perform with “His Famous Orchestra” at the London Palladium. The grandson of a former slave, Ellington was then thirty-four years old. Raised in Washington, D.C., he had begun taking piano lessons when he was seven years old, written his first composition at the age of fourteen, and begun his career as a professional musician four years later.
Duke Ellington’s two-week engagement at the Palladium was a cultural event of major proportions, changing not only how he performed but also the way in which his music was perceived. Long before Ellington’s genius was fully appreciated in America, British audiences demanded he play his more serious extended compositions as well as the dance music “typically expected of black artists in the jazz world.” English critics compared Ellington’s work to Arnold Schönberg’s twelve tone system, while also noting its relationship to “the primitive, discordant, rule-breaking” rhythms of sixteenth-century Elizabethan madrigals.
On Ellington’s opening night in the Palladium, the curtain opened to reveal an expansive stage decorated with three huge cardboard cutouts of cartoonlike black musicians, all of which would now be considered racist. In a pearl gray suit, white shirt, and tie, the impossibly elegant and regal-looking Duke sat behind a concert grand piano. Before he could play a single note, the audience of nearly four thousand, who had paid from 9 pence (about 20 cents) to 5 shillings (about a dollar and a quarter) to see the show, greeted him with the kind of extended ovation that had before been given only to well-known classical performers in England.
Facing an orchestra composed of three trumpet players, three saxophone players, a banjo player, three trombone players, three clarinet players, and a drummer, Ellington kicked off the show with “Ring Dem Bells.” During what was a full-fledged variety show, he played “Bugle Call Rag” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” and brought out Ivie Anderson who sang “Stormy Weather” while leaning against a marble pillar. The dancers Bill Bailey and Derby Wilson gave “a display of neat and fast footwork,” Bessie Dudley, “the original snake hips girl,” did “an impressive rhythmic dancing turn,” and trumpeter Freddy Jenkins sang the Sophie Tucker favorite “Some of These Days.” Ellington brought “the program to a happy conclusion” with “the somber strains of ‘Mood Indigo.’”
The “scores of smartly dressed young English people” in the expensive seats, among them the Duke of Kent, the third son of King George V, stomped their feet, shouted, whistled, and applauded in approval as did the “hundreds in the hinterlands of the Palladium.” After the show, “a small army of autograph seekers,” sixty women among them, “besieged the Duke and his musicians” outside the stage door.
In what one English jazz scholar would later call “a precursor to Beatlemania,” fans clung to Ellington’s limousine as he was driven from the hall. After paying Ellington the highest broadcast fee in its history so he would repeat his stunning performance on the radio, the BBC extended the program for five minutes so Ellington could play “Mood Indigo” in its entirety.
For Ahmet, who was taken to the show by his brother, the evening was an ear-shattering, life-changing experience he would never forget. “It was nothing like hearing the records,” Ahmet would later say. “The engineers at the time were afraid that too much bass or too much drums would crack the grooves on the 78s so they recorded them very low. And when you heard these bands in person, it was explosive. This boom-boom-boom incredible rhythm. It went through your body. I went, ‘Oh my God, this is jazz. This is not this bullshit thing we hear on a record player. This is real jazz.’... The very loudness of the sound, the reverberation of the bass and drum in the theater frightened me, it was so powerful… I’d never heard music with that kind of strength… For the first time, I saw these beautiful black men wearing shining white tuxedos and these brass instruments gleaming. It was an incredible sight.”
A year later, Nesuhi took Ahmet to see Cab Calloway at the Palladium. Although Ahmet would later often confuse the dates of these two shows as well as what the musicians had been wearing, the transformative effect of those magical nights at the London Palladium made him want to make records as powerful as the live performances he had experienced as a boy.
When in June 1934 Mehmet Munir was posted to Washington, D.C., as the ambassador to the United States from the Republic of Turkey, Ahmet was very excited. In his words, “I was twelve when I got to America so my impressions were that I knew about cowboys and Indians but the most important thing for me was jazz. And I was dying to see Louis Armstrong and I thought, ‘Well, that’s where we’re going.’ ”
Leaving his family behind, Mehmet Munir went by himself to Washington so he could begin representing his country’s interests in America as soon as possible. Ahmet’s mother then returned with her children to Turkey for a summer visit that extended for months as she prepared for the long journey to a land where no one she knew had ever gone.
In the very formal, stilted English he had learned at school in London, Ahmet regularly wrote letters to his father in which he expressed his desire to come to America because he thought “there were very many cowboys there.” Although he had already received one from someone else, he also thanked his father for the gift of a new Kodak camera. Repeatedly, Ahmet asked for soccer journals, which did not then exist in America. He concluded one of his letters by writing, “I kiss you a hundred of times, Your dear son, A. Munir.”
During the last week in December 1934, Ahmet, his mother, and his sister traveled to Genoa on the Orient Express and then boarded the ship that would take them to America. At a time when, as Ahmet would say, “making the trip from Europe to America was a major event,” his family did so in the grand manner to which they had all become accustomed. In first-class, they embarked on the SS Rex, the luxurious Italian ocean liner that in August 1933 had won the Blue Riband for the fastest westward crossing of the Atlantic by completing the journey from Gibraltar to New York in the astonishing time of four days, thirteen hours, and fifty-eight minutes.