Interviews

Penny Von Eschen, author of Satchmo Blows Up the World

Penny Von Eschen,

author of

Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War

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At the height of the ideological antagonism of the Cold War, the U.S. State Department unleashed an unexpected tool in its battle against Communism: jazz. From 1956 through the late 1970s, America dispatched its finest jazz musicians to the far corners of the earth, from Iraq to India, from the Congo to the Soviet Union, in order to win the hearts and minds of the Third World and to counter perceptions of American racism.

 In Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, Penny Von Eschen escorts readers across the globe, backstage and onstage, as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and other jazz luminaries spread their music and their ideas further than the State Department anticipated. Both in concert and after hours, through political statements and romantic liaisons, these musicians broke through the government’s official narrative and gave their audiences an unprecedented vision of the black American experience. In the process, new collaborations developed between Americans and the formerly colonized peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East  –collaborations that fostered greater racial pride and solidarity.

Though intended as a color-blind promotion of democracy, this unique Cold War strategy unintentionally demonstrated the essential role of African Americans in U.S. national culture.  Through the tales of these tours, Von Eschen captures the fascinating interplay between the efforts of the State Department and the progressive agendas of the artists themselves, as all struggled to redefine a more inclusive and integrated American nation on the world stage.#

Von Eschen discusses her book with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in an August 22, 2005 interview.

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Cultural Exchange, performed by Dave Lambert/Jon Henricks/Annie Ross/Louis Armstrong And His Band

Lyrics by Iola Brubeck, from The Real Amabassadors

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Yeah!  I remember when Diz was in Greece back in ’56
He did such a good job, we started sending jazz all over the world.

The State Department has discovered jazz.
It reaches folks like nothing has.
Like when they feel that jazzy rhythm,
They know we’re really with ’em;
That’s what they call cultural exchange.

No commodity is quite so strange
As this thing called cultural exchange.
Say that our prestige needs a tonic,
Export the Philharmonic,
That’s what we call cultural exchange!
…And when our neighbors call us vermin,
We sent out Woody Herman.

 

photo Louis Armstrong House

Louis Armstrong, Cairo, 1961

“For more than two decades, all over the globe, America was associated with jazz, civil rights, African American culture, and egalitarianism – not because the jazz ambassadors claimed to represent a free country, but because they identified so deeply with global struggles for freedom. Musicians were not simply tools or followers of this policy. In the most fundamental sense, they were cultural translators who inspired the vision and shaped its contours, constituting themselves as international ambassadors by taking on the contradictions of Cold War internationalism. They called for increased government support of the arts; they spoke freely about their struggles for civil rights; and they challenged the State Department’s priorities. They asserted their right to ‘play for the people.'”

– Penny Von Eschen

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Remember Who You Are, by Louis Armstrong (from The Real Ambassadors)

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JJM Why did American policy makers feel that America would be served if they sent jazz musicians abroad?

PVE  One reason is that government officials saw themselves involved in a Cold War competition with the Soviet Union for the hearts and minds of the world’s emerging nations, as well as those in Europe. President Eisenhower, who was comfortable with neither jazz nor African Americans, was very worried about the image of the United States culturally, and was afraid that the world viewed Americans as mostly materialistic barbarians. He wanted to disprove that and show that the United States had culture and art, so he and others around him decided to turn to jazz and modernism, making the claim that this was the most unique form of American culture.

The other enormous appeal for sending jazz abroad was the fact that, while Eisenhower and other officials may have been uncomfortable with African Americans and their pursuit of civil rights, they understood very well that the continued racial discrimination in the United States and the violent white resistance to civil rights was enormously damaging to the image of the United States. This was especially true in the emerging countries of Africa and Asia. Because African Americans were the prominent musicians in jazz, it was natural that they would turn to jazz as an art form to promote abroad because it would show how much progress had been made in the country, and that America was not racist.

While in retrospect it seems obvious why this decision was made, the State Department and Eisenhower didn’t figure this out on their own — this idea was promoted by a group of journalists, critics, and musicians, and apparently through the efforts of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the African American congressperson from Harlem. Powell was the person who first went to the State Department and told them that they should send jazz musicians abroad, among them being the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. I call Eisenhower and Gillespie the “diplomatic odd couple,” and can’t help but laugh at the image of the two of them. If Eisenhower had actually known that Gillespie was a person who symbolized a hip rebellion, it is unlikely he would have been the first person chosen for the tours.

JJM  At the time, there was a fair amount of resistance to Gillespie and jazz in general. For example, Senator Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana said, “I have never heard so much noise in all my life…To send such jazz as Mr. Gillespie, I can assure you that instead of doing good it will do harm and the people will really believe we are barbarians.”

PVE  Absolutely, and sending jazz abroad set off a huge controversy, especially within Congress. Ellender and others immediately attacked the programs, and attempted to de-fund and put a stop to them. While that didn’t work, the programs were always highly contested. Liberals fastened on to jazz as the best form of American modernism to promote abroad, while the conservatives resisting modernism and many other changes — most fundamentally any challenge to racial segregation — were horrified by jazz and began to attack it. A fascinating part of this story is that by the end of the very first jazz tour, America is not only exporting its culture, but also its deepest conflicts and contradictions. The deepest conflicts get embodied in this program.

JJM  The tours also exposed the Soviet Union’s contradictions, because while they liked to project themselves as being racially tolerant, they looked at the music played by black jazz musicians as being pretty decadent.

PVE  The contradictions are sort of manifold, because on the one hand they present themselves as visionaries concerning racial justice, and their main Cold War propaganda attack on the United States was to expose the racism within the United States; and on the other hand, as you suggest, for the most part the Soviet Union had been very suspicious of jazz being a decadent music. There are moments when they were more open to jazz than others, but from the very start of the jazz tours, the United States was interested in sending jazz to the Soviet Union because they saw it as an opportunity to appeal to people in the Soviet Union. It took them quite a while to make that happen, and a likely reason is that if Louis Armstrong played in their country — which he never did — his presence would undermine their propaganda of suggesting that all black Americans were oppressed. It is also likely the Soviets were concerned that Armstrong’s music would find too much appeal among jazz fans in their own country. So, that was probably an underlying concern, along with their official line that they were very suspicious of modernist art.

JJM  How significant were Willis Conover and the Voice of America’s role in spreading jazz overseas?

PVE  Conover and the Voice of America were tremendously important in creating a broader international audience for jazz. When they first started the Voice of America, the signal was beamed from a new relay station in Tangiers that was aimed at Scandinavia, where they expected jazz to be popular. They did this because they felt they needed to compete in Europe against Soviet art forms. Within a couple of weeks, they received letters from all over the world — as far away as Iran, parts of Asia, and all over northern Africa — and people were just delighted with the program. As a result, they realized jazz was a very important art form.

While I believe Conover is very important and that his role should be truly appreciated, at the same time I find that some accounts of Conover give him too much credit at the expense of the musicians, who have to be put “first” in this story. Conover wouldn’t have been doing this program, nor would jazz have been popular overseas had it not been for the jazz musicians who toured Europe and other parts of the world in the wake of World War I and World War II. Nor would he have done the program without the slow but sure acceleration of the circulation of records throughout that time period. Again, Conover is very important, but we have to put the musicians first.

JJM You wrote, “If policymakers grasped the possibility of appealing to emerging nations and the Eastern bloc through jazz, they never dreamed that the musicians would bring their own agendas. Nor did they anticipate that artists and audiences would interact, generating multiple meanings and effects unanticipated by the State Department.” How could they have been so naïve as to not expect this?

PVE  To put it simply, officials in the State Department and others who were responsible for planning these tours did not imagine that African American jazz musicians would have their own political ideas. In that sense, yes, they were very naïve. Beginning with the first tour of Gillespie’s, and then throughout all the later tours, the musicians took them in a direction that the State Department never imagined. The Department had their own ideas about what these tours were about, but for the musicians, the tours were deeply about sharing their music — they wanted to meet musicians from other countries, they wanted to look at different instruments, they wanted to hear the sounds, and they wanted to jam with people from other countries, whether or not they were jazz musicians. That took off in some very interesting ways in the Soviet Union, where there were a lot of underground jazz fans, but it also took off in places like India and other parts of the world where people weren’t playing jazz but understood the importance of musical improvisation. So they would get together and play with them because they were there for the music.

The other thing that really permeated the tours is that the musicians carried out the civil rights agenda. While the State Department wanted them to show the progress of African Americans and of civil rights, the musicians had a far more egalitarian idea of what they were doing and what their role was than the State Department. Early on during Gillespie’s tour, at a performance in Turkey, he saw that the tickets to his performance were very expensive, and that all the poor kids were standing outside, unable to attend. He said that he came to play for the people — for all of the people — and that he wasn’t going to play unless the kids were let in. This theme of playing for the people was a constant during the tour, and the musicians’ perception of the people was much more democratic than the State Department.

This difference comes out in a very overt way when the Duke Ellington Orchestra toured the Middle East in 1963. The musicians at one point directly challenged the State Department, questioning why they were playing these concerts for elite audiences already familiar with jazz rather than for “the people.” The escort officer sympathetically tried to see the musicians’ side, but, to illustrate the differences in their agendas, he said that the musicians were “disagreeably surprised” about the way the word “people” was defined. He said that the musicians basically wanted to hang out with people on the street — those who don’t necessarily “count,” as he put it — while the State Department was trying to reach the influential elites who do count. I was actually pretty stunned at how clearly this clash came out. While one should not be surprised to find that the musicians were more egalitarian in their approach to these tours than the State Department, it was surprising to find this very clear articulation of those differences.

JJM  In responding to Eisenhower’s refusal to support school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, Louis Armstrong said, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the Government can got to hell.” He characterized Eisenhower as being “two faced” and that he “had no guts.” What was the impact on the State Department of Armstrong’s denunciation of Eisenhower?

PVE  Well, they really panicked. To put this in context, by this time, the whole idea of the jazz ambassador had already been promoted worldwide, and they were actually in the middle of negotiating a tour of the Soviet Union for Armstrong. So, Armstrong’s remarks were very visible. The government was already panicked about Little Rock, and Secretary of State Dulles said at one point that it was ruining our foreign policy, and that they were being criticized for this.

Again, this story goes to the heart of the contradiction in the State Department program. The Department wanted to promote Armstrong as a symbol of American democracy in action because he transcended many of the racial problems; however, when Armstrong commented about Little Rock, he blows it all apart, and basically says that nothing in America is changing, and that, in fact, his government can “go to hell.” His words were exactly what the Department was trying to counter by having him and other African American jazz musicians participate in the tours.

This is a wonderful story of Armstrong’s place in the civil rights movement and of his sensibility, but it also cuts to the heart of the story of the jazz tours, which is that the actions of the jazz musicians couldn’t be controlled by the government, and that they did indeed promote their own agendas. Through his warmth, through his expression of his music, Armstrong articulated his own yearning for freedom in a country that was not yet free, which was something that people in Africa, Asia, and the Soviet Union could identify with so deeply.