The Ertegun family in 1942.
Born in 1923 in Istanbul, Turkey, to an aristocratic Turkish family, Ertegun and his family, including elder brother Nesuhi, moved to Washington, D.C. in 1935, with their father, Munir. Munir served as the second Ambassador (after Ahmet Muhtar Bey, his predecessor between 1927 and 1934) of the then-young Republic of Turkey to the United States of America. Prior to his appointment as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Turkey to Washington, Munir was Ambassador of the Republic to London for two years, from 1932 to 1934.
Ertegun's mother was Hayrünnisa, an accomplished musician who played keyboard and stringed instruments. She bought the popular records of the day, to which Ertegun and his brother listened.
His older brother Nesuhi introduced him to jazz music, taking him at the age of nine to see the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway orchestras in London. When Ahmet was 14, his mother bought him a record-cutting machine, which he used to compose and add lyrics to instrumental records.
Ertegun's love for music pulled him into the heart of Washington, DC's black district where he would routinely see such top acts as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Although he attended Landon School, an affluent all-male private school in Bethesda, Maryland, Ahmet would joke "I got my real education at Howard"—Howard University being a historically black college. Despite his affluent upbringing, Ertegun began to see a different world from his affluent peers. Ertegun would later say: "I began to discover a little bit about the situation of black people in America and experienced immediate empathy with the victims of such senseless discrimination, because, although Turks were never slaves, they were regarded as enemies within Europe because of their Muslim beliefs."
The brothers also frequented Milt Gabler's Commodore Music Shop, assembled a large collection of over 15,000 jazz and blues 78s, and became acquainted with musicians such as Ellington, Lena Horne and Jelly Roll Morton. Ahmet and Nesuhi staged concerts by Lester Young, Sidney Bechet and other jazz giants, often at the . In this period of racial segregation, it was the only place that would allow an ethnically mixed audience and mixed band. They also traveled to New Orleans and to Harlem to listen to music and develop a keen awareness of developing musical tastes.
Ertegun graduated from St. John's College in Annapolis in 1944. In November of the same year, Munir Ertegun died. In 1946 President Harry Truman ordered the battleship USS Missouri to return his body to Turkey as a demonstration of friendship between the US and Turkey. This act also served as a show of support to counter the Soviet Union's potential political demands on Turkey. At the time of his father's death, Ahmet was taking graduate courses in Medieval philosophy at Georgetown University.
Soon afterward, the family returned to Turkey to stay. Ahmet and Nesuhi stayed in the United States. While Nesuhi moved to Los Angeles, Ahmet stayed in Washington and decided to get into the record business as a temporary measure to help him through college.