Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Way it Was: Homage to Ahmet Ertegun

A legend left this world 12/14/06.

As with my earlier paean to Bill Graham, Ahmet Ertegun is the last of a dying breed. Like Pike Bishop's Wild Bunch, the very underpinnings of history are moving beneath their feet; "Those times are closing fast."

Ertegun had that nurturing ability when it came to artists, what in the business is a lost art; development. That art is gone because the economics of today's music oligopoly obliterate the human touch and replace it instead with spread sheets, value maximization and all of the attendant ilk. But it was Ertegun who - along with older brother Nesuhi and (fellow legend) Jerry Wexler - instilled that nurturing spirit into their baby, Atlantic Records.

Press junkets and photo ops - those are the stuff of today because they "maximize value," much as a developer trashing a single-family home and erecting a condo.

Ertegun - like Graham - was passionate in his diversity; from blues to his first love, jazz and on to some of the biggest names of 60's and 70's rock. Of note, he always contextualized those genres as "black American music."

He could have had all of the privilege his lineage afforded him; his father was the ambassador to his motherland, Turkey. But his older brother would hold sway, and as a young man, in a foreshadowing of his sensibilities, Nesuhi was known to have hung around Breton. It would also lead to Nesuhi exposing a young Ahmet to "race music."

Ertegun saw Nat Cole play before he became "King" and knew who the demi-god Art Tatum was despite the master's public obscurity. Hearing Clapton for the first time playing live but not immdediately seeing him, he knew ... he also felt the same way about Page when he got the fledging post-Yardbirds nascent Led Zep's demo. Thus, two of the three British blues-based rock guitar gods (the third was Beck) went to Atlantic and made history.

Today, Tower records goes bankrupt and the music oligarchs throw up their hands at the burning of Rome. "Downloading is killing us," they say. Maybe. But is it just a coincidence that as a kid I'd listen to records and pour over liner notes, read "Down Beat" and "Creem" and "Rolling Stone" (when it was worth a plugged nickel), and be enthralled? Music seemed to be about more then, and something, dare I say it, was in the air. And Ertegun was an integral part of that spirit.

The air in today's room is putrid.

Open the windows. Ahmet Ertegun has left the room.