March 29, 2006
Ahmet Ertegun

Ipek Cem met with legendary music producer Ahmet Ertegun, Founding C.E.O. of Atlantic Records, at his office in New York. Besides holding many honors and being a three time Grammy award winner, Ertegun is also an active member of the Turkish-American community in the United States.

Ipek Cem: Hello. Our guest today is one of the pioneers of the music industry. Welcome Mr.Ertegun.


Ahmet Ertegun: Thank you very much. Thank you for your invitation.


Ipek Cem: Thanks. When I searched your background, I saw a person very much in love with music to begin with. And this love has led you to an adventure starting from your childhood. I think it was your brother who took you to a Duke Ellington concert and that's where everything started.


Ahmet Ertegun: Yes, two people were my role models when I was a kid. My father and my brother. They had a huge effect on me. My father was Ataturk's legal adviser in the 1920's. Before that he was a representative of the Ottoman Empire during conferences at the end of the war.


Ipek Cem: As far as I know your father had passed on a message from the Sultan to Ataturk –still Mustafa Kemal then. Is that correct?


Ahmet Ertegun: Yes. After he had passed on the message he said to Ataturk ‘ I have finished my duty with the Empire, I would rather work for you.' After that Ataturk took him in. During the war, my father was the only one who knew a foreign language so when Ataturk gave a lecture after the battle he would turn to my father and ask him to translate, and he would help ask much as he could. My father had spent his entire youth in Turkey. In 1925, Ataturk sent my father to the UN to represent Turkey. Afterwards he was stationed in Paris, London and finally ended up in Washington in 1934. He was the Turkish ambassador there for ten years and his efforts secured a strong relationship between Turkey and the United States.The night he died... My father died of a heart attack in 1944. The first person to visit my mother was Roosevelt's wife Eleneor Roosevelt. She was there at 7 o'clock in the morning. They were very good friends of ours. My father helped build strong relationships between the two countries.


Ipek Cem: He was a well respected and active ambassador. As far as I know his body was sent to Turkey on the USS Missouri. At the time that was a big thing for Turkey and the United States, was it not?


Ahmet Ertegun: Of course. Because no ambassador was sent back to his country on a big battleship like the Missouri until then. I assume they also wanted to show Russia their strength but the respect they showed my father was very important.


Ipek Cem: You talked about your father as a role model. I'd like to ask about your brother. His role in directing you to music and especially jazz.


Ahmet Ertegun: My brother became a part of the French cultural life when he was very young. When we went America, my brother Nesuhi stayed and studied at the Sorbonne. During that time Turkish intellectuals such as Abidin Dino and Fikret Mualla were living in Paris. They were my brother's close friends. Besides music, my brother was into art, literature, philosophy and politics. He was living the intellectual life in France. During the 1930's there was a serious group in France that studied jazz. You know in those years white and black people were living seperately in America and some black artists had fled to France. Musicians like Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter and Bill Coleman were in Paris and Nesuhi was friends with them. When I was a kid my brother took me to see a couple of jazz bands and I couldn't believe my ears. Because at that time the records that were produced couldn't convey how powerful that music was. There was always an orchestra. There were a couple of movie theatres with live music, theatres white people went to. And then there was the Howard Theatre. Only black people went there. I used to go there every week to watch the show. Only a few white people would go there.

There was a group from Baltimore called Chick Webb. They had a lady vocalist. I liked her very much. I went to the backstage exit, waited for her  and asked for her autograph. She told me it was the first time anyone had wanted her autograph. She was Ella Fitzgerald. I was 12 maybe 13 and Ella Fitzgerald was 17.


Ipek Cem: You had adopted the energy and enthusiasm of the black people's music during that time. In a way music talks about the social lives, hopes and dissapointments of people. During that time in America social status had a color, people had hopes and music was their way to express themselves. Maybe it was an escape. Nowadays there are different styles like rap and hip-hop. Do you find a correlation between socail events and music?


Ahmet Ertegun: Everything has changed a lot. The 30's, 40's and 50's were difficult years for black people. Now it has changed, it has become better. They still have difficulties. Equality is still far away. Economicaly they are behind.

Discrimination and slavery was a very bad thing. But this is how this music came to be. This is a music that the black people created in America. This not a music from Africa.Not from Africa or the Carribean. This is the music blacks do in America. Black American music. The music spread out to so many places now everybody is doing it. During the 1920's everybody was doing the black dances. They still do. Foxtrot is a dance that originated form jazz, just like Charleston. The white people who copied this music created swing in the 30's.

For example, if you go to a disco in Turkey you hear American black music. Not just in Turkey, all around the world. This is America's biggest artform. American jazz and blues. All the styles like hip hop that came afterwards originated from this music. If you ask me who is the greatest musician of the past century – it's not Stravinsky nor Caruso. It's Lois Armstrong.


Ipek Cem: It probably is because he is liked and listened to all around the world. Now we are talking about a more digital era. Different technologies are used in making and distributing music.You can download music from the internet, on mobile telephones and can receive it in the mp3 format. This has caused some legal problems. And music companies are trying to adapt to this. At the same time it is still being dealt with. How do you think this process is affecting the music industry?


Ahmet Ertegun: Our job is to create music, not technology. We make music here. Technology changes the way music is marketed. Unfortunately this is a market where people can get for free the things we are selling. We still have customers but they are getting less and this is a big problem. Not only record companies but movie companies don't have a long time to live. Governments must find a solution. Or no one can hold on to things that are copyrighted.


Ipek Cem: Yes, there is a different environment. Some people want to distribute their own music.


Ahmet Ertegun: You know what, if that happens bad music will emerge. I have hundreds of demos in my office. The world's worst music. They are done by amateurs and we listen to them just in case something interesting comes up. You are lucky if you can find one out of a thousand. The music you listen to today has been processed by so many people. The ones who were not good were eliminated. If these surface out maybe the people will become tired of music. In fact there are some. They buy electronic games instead of music. These sell more than music.


Ipek Cem: I would like to put music aside and talk about the relationship between Turkey and the US. I know you have some works on improving the effectiveness of Turkish people living in America. You are involved in some associations as president or honorary chairman in this regard. How do you see the Turkish community in the United States compared to the past 10 or 50 years? How do you think Turkish people can be more effective especially when it comes to lobbying activities?


Ahmet Ertegun: Turkish people have just started coming to America. Compared to other nations we are relatively new because it was difficult to leave the country for a long time. I mean it wasn't considered a noble thing. Why would someone leave their homeland to go somewhere else? This started changing in the past 30-40 years. Most of the Turkish people who come here are professionals, like collage professors and doctors. Unfortunately we still don't have a lot of rich people but there are people who will become rich. Because if you look at it the Germans, Italians, Spanish, Irish and Armenians, have come here long before us. They are really settled here and have become very powerful.


Ipek Cem: Last summer your name came up in a concortium associated with the sales of TGRT. Later on that didn't happen. Are you still interested in the media?


Ahmet Ertegun: I am. I have other partners as well. I want to invest in Turkey from abroad and also want to help people who want to invest in Turkey. We are looking at a few television groups. I hope we can acquire something before the end of this year. Because I have a few ideas about Turkish television. TV is a very important entertainment tool for the masses.


Ipek Cem: Are your partners the same? At one time the Lauder Group and Ronald lauder was mentioned.


Ahmet Ertegun: Yes, they are involved and also a couple of other friends. It would be better if they gave their names themselves.


Ipek Cem: I would like to thank you for your time and this precious interview. Thank you very much. We hope to see you more in istanbul.


Ahmet Ertegun: Thank you.


Please note that the original interview was conducted in Turkish and this is a translation from the original.  You can view the original language interview at


This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, NTV networks and Ipek Cem cannot vouch for its accuracy.