By Sean Yoes, AFRO Baltimore Editor, email@example.com
Over the course of seven decades Ethel Ennis, the pride of West Baltimore, shared her God-given gift, which was her luminous, cogent voice. But, her sparkling character and generous spirit also blessed countless others even beyond the scope of her timeless music. Ennis died Feb. 17. She was 86.
According to reports, Ennis died of a stroke in her home in the Greater Mondawmin community where she had lived since 1963. Although she toured the world during her career and reached millions around the globe through her music, she always made Baltimore her home.
‘Baltimore’s First Lady of Jazz’, Ethel Ennis.
“Ethel Ennis was such a foundational fixture of Baltimore…she was absolutely an institution in Baltimore, in jazz,” said George “Gar” Roberts, a veteran music producer, who has worked with Ennis, as well as Phyllis Hyman, Roy Ayers, Jean Carn, Lonnie Liston Smith and Pieces of a Dream among others during his career. “Plus, she was a great person, just a great person.”
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh also acknowledged Ennis’ undying devotion to her hometown. “Ethel was not only a musical giant but a true champion of Baltimore; always spotlighting her hometown,” Pugh said in a statement.
Ennis was born on N. Calhoun St. Nov. 28, 1932 and grew up in the Sandtown-Winchester community. Like so many other legendary vocalists, Ennis began playing piano in church when she was a little girl. According to a profile on the legendary vocalist by John Lewis for Baltimore Magazine in March 2011, after she graduated from Douglass High School in 1950, Ennis attended business school during the day and performed at night, singing at strip joints on The Block and at trucker’s bars on Pulaski Highway. The trajectory of her career shifted sharply after a New Yorker named George Fox heard Ennis sing at the Club Casino on Pennsylvania Ave. Fox, who owned the Red Fox at Pennsylvania and Fulton, was so smitten with Ennis’ talent he arranged for her to play regularly at the Red Fox for several years. By 1957, Ennis had crafted the foundations of an extraordinary international career, which included dozens of albums and she performed with some of the seminal figures in jazz music including: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Joe Williams and Billy Taylor. During her decades-long career, the songstress crossed paths with an eclectic mix of the world’s towering figures from Muhammad Ali to Miles Davis. Ennis, who was a lifelong Democrat, even sang a stirring a cappella version of the National Anthem in 1973 during the re-inauguration of Richard Nixon.
But, despite what would have been a dizzying ascendance for many, Ennis always stayed firmly rooted in the authenticity of West Baltimore. And she was always accessible to musicians finding their way.
“I was a youngster, I was just starting…but, she invited to perform at Artscape…and I was in shock,” said Brenda Alford, another Baltimore-based jazz legend, as she reflected on her experience with Ennis in the late 1970’s, when Alford was in her 20’s. “I was totally in shock, because first of all I didn’t know that she knew I existed. And secondly, I just didn’t feel worthy…and she was so gracious,” Alford added with a laugh. “That really planted a seed in my soul…there was what I call a little golden thread that connected my spirit to hers.”
In 1984, Ennis along with her beloved husband of more than 50 years, Earl Arnett, opened Ethel’s Place in the Mt. Vernon community of Baltimore, directly across from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Cathedral St.
“Once she opened up the club she was really trying to do it right,” said Roberts regarding Ennis’ and Arnett’s time as jazz impresarios. “She had the vision of being able to do it right…she cared about the artists.” Music titans from Wynton Marsalis to Yo-Yo Ma graced Ethel’s Place, establishing the club as an international venue for world-class music.
“She wanted to make sure that her facility was both conducive and great for the artists, as well as the audience. It was a top notch club…I just had so much respect for her.”
On her second studio album, Change of Scenery, recorded on Capitol Records in 1957, Ennis sings, “Ev’rytime We Say Goodbye,” the lyrics resonate as the world says goodbye to our First Lady.
“When you’re near, there’s such an air of spring about it. I can hear a lark somewhere begin to sing about it. There’s no love song finer; but, how strange to change from major to minor,” she sang.
And then at the end of the song, Ennis’ shimmering voice soars and then lands placid among clouds.
“Everytime we say goodbye; Everytime we say goodbye; Goodbye; Goodbye.”