Baltimore's lady of jazz Ethel Ennis fell in love with jazz and blues in childhood. At 65, there's nothing else she'd rather sing.


June 14, 1998|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

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.

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