Ethel Ennis, Baltimore's 'First Lady of Jazz,' dies at 86
Frederick N. Rasmussen
Ethel Ennis, Baltimore’s “First Lady of Jazz” who during her more than nearly seven-decade career performed with such noted musical luminaries as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Miles Davis-John Coltrane Sextet and Wynton Marsalis, died Sunday from complications of a stroke at her Greater Mondawmin home.
She was 86.
Born in a North Calhoun Street rowhouse in Baltimore and raised in Sandtown-Winchester, Ethel Ennis was the daughter of Andrew Ennis Sr., a Harlem Park barber, and Arrabell “Bell” Ennis, a homemaker, who played piano at Ames United Methodist Church.
Ms. Ennis grew up in a home where jazz and the blues, which represented the “fast life,” were not played.
“‘I could hear the music coming from an apartment below us,’” she told The Baltimore Sun in a 1998 article.
“So, to get a better earful, the young Ennis got down on the floor, one ear pressed to the concrete,” the article read. “‘I came from a rather conservative background. Jazz and blues were forbidden,’” she said.
Ms. Ennis was urged by her mother to study the piano, which turned into her first paying job as a church pianist. By the time she was in her teens, she had discovered popular rhythm and blues music, which didn’t entirely please her family, who thought it was just a phase she was passing through.
She joined a group of young enthusiastic jazz musicians, Riley’s Octet, which was led by Abraham Riley, as a $2.50 a week pianist.
“I was much too young to play in clubs, so we played in places like VFW and fellowship halls where my age was accepted,” she explained in the Sun interview. “My grandmother always emphasized ‘being a lady.’ She kept saying to always be a lady. So, I’ve been a lady singing the blues in these bars forever.”
The first time Ms. Ennis sang in public was as a 15-year-old when Riley’s Octet was playing an Odd Fellows Hall in Randallstown, after an audience member promised her a $5 tip if she sang “In the Dark.”
After her performance, her days as the group’s pianist came to an end.
“Her angelic, full-throated singing brought the house down,” wrote John Lewis in Baltimore Magazine in 2011. “The crowd demanded encores, and, from then on, she was a vocalist.”
After she graduated in 1950 from Frederick Douglass High School, attended business school during the day, she performed with Montell Poulson, a bassist, or solo. They played strip clubs on Baltimore’s Block and other joints, including Sherrie’s Bar on Pulaski Highway, a truckers’ bar.
“She and Poulson played mostly ballads, jazz tunes, and R&B at Phil’s Lounge, The Zanzibar, and Pennsylvania Avenue’s Club Casino,” Mr. Lewis wrote.
This article will be updated.