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Jazz Diva Celebrates Semi-Stardom

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The seductive sounds wafting through the floor were a temptation that could not be ignored.

Jazz and blues represented the fast life and were forbidden in the West Baltimore home, as in many homes during that time. But there was no shielding Ethel Ennis from the times.

“I could hear the music coming from the apartment below us,” Ethel Ennis says. So the young Ennis pressed an ear to the floor so she could hear it better.

More than five decades later, Baltimore’s 65-year-old jazz diva is still soaking up the music she loves.

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Her performing schedule this summer includes private functions and the Chestertown Jazz Festival; in October, she joins pianist Billy Taylor at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for a concert; her new CD is scheduled for release in the fall; and she’s making plans to travel around the country to promote it.

“It is traditional and contemporary songs,” Ennis says. All of the songs are written by women, including Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading and Joni Mitchell. Ennis also wrote one of the songs for the still-untitled CD.

Ennis is relaxing in her small but comfortable Baltimore rowhouse on a quiet, tidy street. She and her husband, Earl Arnett, have lived in the same home for more than 30 years. She has a small studio in the basement where she practices.

Ennis grew up not far from here, spending some of her adolescence in the projects.

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The woman who would one day travel the world singing her songs led a cloistered childhood. Her parents, along with her maternal grandmother, shielded Ennis from the segregated times as much as possible. Sometimes, though, the real world intruded.

“We were going shopping downtown, and there weren’t too many places where you could go to relieve yourself,” Ennis says, recalling one of those times. “You had to use the bathroom before you left home, but sometimes that didn’t always work out.”

Ennis described her mother, who was known as Bell, as a fighter. Ennis, however, adopted more of her grandmother’s ways. “My grandmother always tried to be understanding about it. She tried to be spiritual about things. Oh my, oh goodness, yes! I am more like her!”

Church and family played a big role in the Ennis family life. Her mother traveled to different storefront churches playing the organ and piano. Bell Ennis encouraged the young Ethel to take piano lessons, and her first job was playing the piano in a church.

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By the time she was a teenager, Ennis had discovered popular rhythm and blues music, much to the consternation of her family, particularly her grandmother.

“I came from a rather conservative background,” she says. “Jazz and blues were forbidden.”

But like other teenagers, then and now, she found the pull of music too strong to ignore. Opportunity came calling when she was 15. A neighbor asked her to join a group of young jazz musicians called Riley’s Octet, led by Abraham Riley. She earned $2.50 a week as a pianist.

The group played private functions in various halls. “I was much too young to play in clubs,” she says. “So we played in places like VFW and fellowship halls where my age was accepted.”

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Her mother didn’t object to her little girl playing in halls because she knew Ennis spent free time rehearsing. Ennis’ grandmother took a little more convincing.

“My grandmother always emphasized ‘being a lady,’ ” Ennis says. “She kept saying to always be a lady. So, I’ve been a lady singing the blues in these bars forever!”

Although her parents and grandmother supported their blues-playing teen, they assumed it would be a passing phase.

They were wrong.

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At one of the group’s gigs, Ennis got swept up into the music and belted out a song. “I was asked, can you sing ‘In the Dark’? Here I was, 15 years old and singing ‘In the Dark.’ ”

The audience loved it. By the time Ennis graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, she was well on her way to becoming an established singer.

Over the years, Ennis’ voice has been compared to that of Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. She has performed locally, nationally and internationally. Her first recording was in 1955 and called “Ethel Ennis Sings Lullabys for Losers.”

The public adored her clear, jazzy voice with the bluesy undertones.

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Nationally, she caught the eye and ears of top performers. She sang with the Count Basie band, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman.

Ennis admits she has never been a household name like Vaughn, Fitzgerald and Lee. In fact, she chose to step away from that kind of fame.

“I saw the rat race. I understood the road they were going to design for me. I decided to step back,” she says without a trace of regret.

It was in the ‘60s, and Ennis was poised to hit the really big time after her agent secured an RCA Victor recording contract and bookings into cities across the country. But there was a catch: Her agent wanted Ennis to move out of Baltimore and wanted to control her appearances.

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“You had to belong to a clique,” she says. “You were supposed to be seen with all of the right people, the movers and the shakers. They tried to mold you into something you were not.” That request did not sit right with Ennis.

“The agent said, ‘You don’t want to be a star. You want to be a semi-star.’ I said, ‘OK. I’ll be a semi-star.’ I did have determination, but I don’t think you have to go against your grain.”

“She is not running away from success,” Arnett says. It’s simply that the couple define success in their own terms, which include staying close to family in Baltimore.

In 1984, they opened Ethel’s Place, an upscale jazz club on Cathedral Street that featured local and national acts. The club, however, was not profitable, and it closed in 1988.

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“I have no regrets,” Ennis says. “I would do it this way all over again. I would not change a thing. Every day for us is a holiday.”

Ennis and Arnett have been married 31 years. He first saw her perform in 1963 at a club. A few years later, when he was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, he decided to do a story on her. “I never did write that story,” Arnett says.

Ennis says they have a romance that has lasted throughout the years. Arnett has been described as being Ennis’ manager, but they say that is not quite right.

“He’s my life partner, my friend and my spouse,” she says.

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