America's Jazz Ambassadors

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During the cold war in the 1950s and 60s, when America was worried about Sputnik, ICBMs, and building bomb shelters, there was a quiet but determined cultural diplomacy going on behind the Iron Curtain. The U.S. State Department around the mid-1950s started sending American jazz musicians into Russia, newly-independent African nations (whom the USSR was wooing), Yugoslavia, Hungary, Pakistan, India, and other developing nations. The State Department first thought of sending a top US ballet company such as Martha Graham’s or the American Ballet Theater. The great U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, who was the first African-American to be elected to the Congress (his district was Harlem), proposed a better idea: send top jazz musicians abroad to represent American democracy. After all, isn’t jazz the most democratic of artforms?

And so it was that Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck Duke Ellington toured the world spreading the infectious musical joy of jazz to people in countries where jazz was either little known or forbidden.

A recent show at the UCLA Fowler Museum was dedicated to this wonderful chapter in musical diplomacy. I led a panel that included Quincy Jones, who was on the very first tour in 1955. There is a picture of him near the  Sphinx, a country being courted by the Soviet Union because of the Suez Canal’s strategic location. Another pictures shows Q at the Acropolis, posing as Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker.

In one funny incident, perhaps apocryphal but I think not, Louis Armstrong was sent to Ghana. Upon his return to the States, he landed at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C..  Vice President Richard Nixon was there to meet him, and was in the limousine that went out onto the tarmac to greet him.

Nixon asked Satchmo if there was anything he could do for him. Louis said yes, please can you carry my trumpet case through customs?  Satchmo was a regular pot smoker and had some fine Ghanaian weed in his case.  And the Vice President got it through customs without a hitch.

Jazz was certainly the great cultural ambassador of America back then. Hip hop has now joined and shared that distinction. The great LA band Ozomatli was dispatched to tour the Middle East, Burma, and other places recently.

Check out this video of Satchmo’s arrival in Ghana 1956–it’s great!


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