Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The shores of America

I'm reading two books at the moment which both speak to the immigrant experience in twentieth century America, albeit in different ways, The Life of Saul Bellow by Zachary Leader and The Last Sultan, Robert Greenfield's biography of Ahmet Ertegun, a founder in the late forties of Atlantic Records, the soul and R&B label whose roster of artists included Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

Bellow was the son of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire who had travelled from St. Petersburg to Chicago via Canada whereas Ertegun arrived in Washington, D.C. with his jazz-loving brother Neshui in 1935 from London where their father had been the Turkish ambassador (The Last Sultan also discusses the Erteguns' relationship with the Chess brothers Leonard and Phil, founders of the Chicago blues record label of the same name and themselves Jewish immigrants from a town in Poland, now Belarus).

There a couple of things which immigrants bring to their artistic endeavours, whether literary or musical. One is the ability to see the society they have joined with the perspective of an outsider, and the other is a blindness to its barriers and rules: I'd guess, for example, that Ertegun was the only student at the exclusive private prep school he attended as a teenager in Maryland who bought records and went to jazz clubs in Washington's black section.

1 comment:

  1. I don't remember if it's mentioned in The Last Sultan, but I seem to remember reading that, since Jim Crow still prevailed in Washington D.C. in the 1940s, the only place a racially mixed audience could listen to jazz was the Turkish Embassy!