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Nesuhi Ertegun Biography

Nesuhi Ertegun spent most of his lifetime working at Atlantic Records and associated labels. He joined Atlantic in 1956, nine years after its founding by his brother Ahmet and Herb Abramson. Nesuhi initially developed Atlantic’s album department and built up the label’s extensive catalog of jazz albumrs. The list of jazz artists he produced at Atlantic over the years reads like a who’s who: John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, the Modern Jazz Quartet and more. Nesuhi also became involved with the label’s rhythm & blues and rock and roll roster as well, producing several hit records for Ray Charles, the Drifters, Bobby Darin and Roberta Flack.

Nesuhi Ertegun was born on November 26, 1917, in Istanbul, Turkey. Nesuhi’s father was a Turkish diplomat, and Nesuhi left his native country at an early age and began, as he put it, “moving around the world.” The family moved to Switzerland, Paris and London before Nesuhi’s father became the Turkish ambassador to the United States, and the family moved to Washington DC. Nesuhi began listening to music early on, and in England he began listening to the big bands who broadcast over the BBC. In France, he became aware of Django Reinhardt, and in the U.S. he began listening to Stephane Grappelli, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. Then he familiarized himself with modern jazz. All the while, he build up an impressive record collection that included the works of Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.

In Washington, Nesuhi and his younger brother Ahmet would frequent the Howard Theater and scour the community for records by their favorite musicians. In the Forties, Nesuhi began promoting concerts at the National Press Club in Washington, and he would frequently venture to New York to see such jazz greats as Billie Holiday and Lester Young. 

1944, Nesuhi moved to Los Angeles to run the Jazzman Record Shop. He also put together the band for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater Presents radio show. Then he persuaded New Orleans jazzman Kid Ory to come out of retirement and assemble a new band. Nesuhi then formed his own label, Crescent Records (later Jazzman), to record Ory. The label also released records by Jelly Roll Morton and Jimmy Noone.  Nesuhi also served as editor of Record Changer magazine, and he taught the first accredited course in jazz offered in the U.S., at UCLA.

In the mid-Fifties, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler decided they needed someone to develop an album department for the label. Nesuhi had recently spent three years at Contemporary Records, supervising their album releases. He then moved to New York to work for his brother’s label. “Jazz is an important musical form,” Nesuhi said. “Whether there is a big public demand for it or not, I will always sign new artists and continue to work with established ones.”

Nesuhi went on to produce classic albums by such artists as John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Herbie Mann, Carmen McRae and many more. He also produced albums by such R&B and rock and roll artists as Ray Charles, the Drifters, Bobby Darin and Roberta Flack.

In addition to his production work, Nesuhi later went on to spearhead Atlantic’s international operations, expanding the business and opening up new markets overseas. After the merger of the Warner Bros., Elektra and Atlantic labels in 1971, Nesuhi headed WEA International. He later oversaw the special-projects division of Warner Communications and launched East/West, an Atlantic-distributed label, in 1988. At East/West, he returned to the studio as producer of such artists as the Modern Jazz Quartet and Milt Jackson. 

Nesuhi Ertegun died on July 15, 1989, following complications from cancer surgery. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991