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," she says. So, to get a better earful, the young Ennis got down on the floor, one ear pressed to the concrete.
More than five decades later, Baltimore's 65-year-old jazz diva is still soaking up the music she loves. She's performing at two private functions in Baltimore this summer; in September, she will play at 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," says Ennis. All of the songs are written by women, including Traci Chapman, Joan Armatrading and Joni Mitchell.
Ennis also wrote one of the songs for the as-yet untitled CD.
"For years I have been saying, 'Let's hear from the women,' " she says.
Ennis is relaxing in her small but comfortable Baltimore rowhouse on a quiet, tidy street near Mondawmin Mall. 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 Gilmore projects.
The woman who would one day travel the world singing her songs led a cloistered childhood. Her parents, Arrabell and Andrew, along with her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Smith, known as "Honey," 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 was about 6 or 7 when it didn't work out one time.
"My mother asked the salesclerk where the bathroom was. She pointed to it but, of course, it had a sign that said, 'Whites Only.' She pushed that door so hard, it almost came off the hinges." Ennis laughs about it now. "We walked out of there with our heads up and my pants up!"
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, which led to her first job - playing the piano in a church.
By the time she was a teen-ager, 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 teen-agers, 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."
Her mother was OK with her little girl playing in halls because, at least, she knew Ennis spent free time rehearsing. Ennis' grandmother took a little more convincing.
"My grandmother always emphasized 'being a lady,' " says Ennis. "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.
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 those 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.
Locally, Ennis appeared all over town. Back when Pennsylvania
L Avenue was a happening musical scene, Ennis performed at the
Casino and the Red Fox night clubs. She appeared at the Zanzibar, which was in West Baltimore, and Phil's on the east side of town.
"I was even at Sherrie's Bar on Pulaski Highway, and this was back in the '50s," she says.
Nationally, she caught the eyes and ears of top performers. She sang with the Count Basie band, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman.
Ennis acknowledges that she has never been a household name like Vaughn, Fitzgerald or Lee. She says 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 to cities across the country. But there was a catch: Her agent wanted Ennis to move out of Baltimore and wanted to control her appearances.
"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," says Arnett. 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. "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, who have been married 31 years, often finish each other's sentences.
"I'm excited ..." Ennis says about her life.
"We want to let people know that she is alive and kicking!"
"This is another new beginning," she says.
"I tease her that we are going to have to carry her on that stage," he says.
"I talk in titles," she says. "Earl gives the dissertations."
Arnett first saw Ennis perform in 1963 at the Red Fox. A few years later, when he was a reporter at The 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.
Pub Date: 6/14/98