Penny Von Eschen,
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.
Lyrics by Iola Brubeck, from The Real Amabassadors
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
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.
JJM Speaking to that, in 1955, a Newsweek critic explained that “ the simple emotional impact of jazz cuts through all manner of linguistic and ideological barriers, and Louis Armstrong becomes an extraordinary kind of roving American ambassador of goodwill.” Did this description have any impact on Armstrong’s image, and of jazz itself?
PVE That is interesting because what that theory demonstrates is how important Armstrong and the very idea of the jazz ambassador was. While he did not make the first tour — Gillespie did — the whole notion of the jazz ambassador had arisen because of Armstrong. In some sense the term “jazz ambassador” may have originated with his Ambassador Satch album, and the State Department literally got the name from that production. Again, putting the musician first, the point is that it was Armstrong’s incredible success on his European tour and the way audiences responded to him that led to people describing him as an ambassador. Armstrong was America’s most effective ambassador, in this case not touring for the State Department, but just appearing abroad as a successful and popular black American. His touring on his own, in fact, was more effective than the massive amounts of propaganda the United States put into its cultural war with the Soviet Union.
JJM You wrote a great deal about the album Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola collaborated on with Armstrong and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. How did The Real Ambassadorsalbum capture the complex politics of the State Department?
PVE Yes, this was a very interesting moment. The Real Ambassadors was recorded in 1962, and was a jazz musical review — a satire of the State Department tours. Brubeck’s quartet and Armstrong’s band came together in this production. Both bands had participated in State Department tours; Brubeck had done a grueling tour in 1958 that ended up being in the middle of a coup in Iraq, and Armstrong’s band had recently returned from several months touring the African continent.
Looking at the project’s development, you can see how it was a collaboration of sensibilities. Iola Brubeck wrote the libretto over a series of years, and it is clear how much of it she drew from Armstrong because some of the phrases in the song and the play were taken directly from statements Armstrong made in the newspaper. So Armstrong’s presence appears in this in a very interesting way. I love the fact that it was written and rewritten over a period of five years, during the early dynamic years of the tours. It very powerfully captured both the foreign policy and domestic civil rights contradictions. For example, it opened with somebody saying something about going to Moscow, and Armstrong then calls out, “Forget Moscow, when do we play in New Orleans?” — which is reminiscent of his standing up to Eisnenhower, saying that he wouldn’t play in the Soviet Union. While it very directly recalls his defiance of Eisenhower, it also very directly speaks to the idea of the Brubeck’s wanting to honor Armstrong’s role in civil rights. This was important because by this time, both among musicians and young fans of jazz, Armstrong was seen as an artist from an earlier generation — an “Uncle Tom” who accommodated demeaning roles and strategies. The Brubeck’s wanted to bring out his defiance, and did so in another part of the play when the narrator says that the “hero” is known for keeping his opinions to himself, after which Armstrong calls out, “Lady, if you could read my mind, your head would bust wide open.” So they are very overtly playing with all of that.
From our present day perspective, these types of statements defending civil rights and egalitarianism seem relatively mild, but when this was produced, America was at the height of the violent civil rights movement, and the federal government had not yet begun to take a stand to defend civil rights advocacy on a formal level. It was a very bold, controversial act at that moment in time. After The Real Ambassadors was performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, there was some talk about going on Broadway with it, and eventually going on the road with it, but it was so politically charged that nobody would touch it. It is important for us to step back and realize how militant this production was for that time.
JJM A major importance of The Real Ambassadors recording is that it offered Armstrong material that was basically closer to his own sensibilities and outlook on the world …
PVE Absolutely, because he had spent many years in roles not of his own choosing — like many African American artists who experience tremendous struggles over the presentation of their blackness. This production certainly offered him work closer to his own sensibilities, where he could speak about civil rights and struggles for freedom.
JJM Why was Benny Goodman chosen to perform in the Soviet Union in 1962?
PVE That is quite a complicated story, and the back and forth of getting Goodman was so intriguing to me that I trace it at some length in the book before talking about the actual tour, which was as full of controversy and divisiveness as the story leading up to it. As we talked about earlier, Soviet officials were suspicious of jazz to start with, and they clearly rejected Armstrong early on, mostly because having him or another successful black musician appear in their country would undermine their attacks on the United States for being a racist country. In addition to his being white, it is possible that they found Goodman more acceptable because he was a classical musician as well as a jazz musician. However, when it was announced that Goodman was going to the Soviet Union, it immediately caused an uproar in the jazz community because a trip to the Soviet Union was so highly coveted. There were also questions about why Goodman was being sent since he did not represent modern jazz. People felt he was too old fashioned, and couldn’t understand why they weren’t sending Duke Ellington instead. This wasn’t just a generational conflict — people wanted jazz to be represented by a more cutting-edge artist, and were very distressed by Goodman’s selection. Dizzy Gillespie, for example, admitted that he wanted to go to the Soviet Union so bad he could taste it, and questioned why they were sending Goodman’s style of jazz abroad. The fact that Goodman was not very popular among some of his musicians certainly didn’t help.
What is so interesting about this is that some of this back and forth and outrage about sending Goodman would sound like mere petty gossip had it not prefigured what actually happened in the Soviet Union. When Goodman got there, his band — which consisted mostly of young musicians like the alto player Phil Woods — wanted to improvise and play modern jazz, but Goodman wouldn’t let them. Whenever they did take off on a solo, Goodman would punish them. His program basically consisted of decades-old music, and a great deal of tension developed in the band. The “mutiny” of the band became so severe that it started making the pages of not only Downbeat, but the New York Times as well, and the State Department was writing extensive memos about the friction within the band, which was becoming extremely serious.
JJM Regarding the Soviet’s acceptance of Goodman, the New York Times reported, “As much as they relished Mr. Goodman’s performance, many Soviet fans were frank in their saying that the King of Swing was now regarded in the Soviet Union as passe.”
PVE The Soviet Union had a very large, intense, underground jazz scene, and those fans were also very critical of what Goodman was playing. So what was basically taking place was the teaming up of the Soviet jazz fans and the members of the Goodman band against the forces of bureaucracy, represented by the Soviet state and Benny Goodman. It is a fascinating, unpredictable split.
JJM Concerning the 1963 events of Birmingham, Alabama, you quote a Nigerian journalist as writing at the time that the United States was becoming “the most barbarian state in the world.” How did the events of Birmingham affect our foreign policy and fuel an interest in exporting black culture?
PVE What happened in Birmingham was very similar to what the United States had been dealing with throughout the jazz tours. While the State Department was making claims abroad that America was the leader of the free world, and that it was the most democratic nation in the world, people were consistently exposed to white violence against black people in the South, and violence directed against civil rights activists and anyone trying to affect change. Birmingham was yet another moment that makes all these promises — this pretense of change and democracy and progress of civil rights that the State Department communicated — really look like a sham, which was a contradiction they similarly had to deal with for the first seven years of the jazz tours. Because the over-arcing contradictions stayed the same through those years, it pointed to the slowness and difficulty of change in the United States — it wasn’t until 1963 that John F. Kennedy actually named racism as a moral problem. So, in that sense, Birmingham certainly was the turning point.
However, for various reasons, Birmingham does not deepen America’s commitment to the tours; one may be because of Kennedy’s death, but it was also because the country’s foreign policy was being increasingly drawn into and very quickly overwhelmed by Vietnam. As the involvement in Vietnam deepened, so did its foreign policy efforts in Africa. At this time, the State Department made a major shift in the tour when it overtly decided to shift the tour’s emphasis from exposing jazz modernism to that of exporting music that had a broader appeal. At that point, while jazz remained very important — especially to the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc — as they looked at Africa, Asia, and a few other places, they took note of the power of soul music and of rhythm and blues, and turned to a broader representation of African American art in an attempt to specifically reach activists and students across the continent of Africa.
JJM Also, you point out that by exporting gospel and soul, they sort of took the focus away from the material aspects of American music and more onto the spiritual.
PVE Yes, that is a fascinating claim. By sending Marian Anderson to Africa, and later when Mahalia Jackson went to India at a time the United States was arming Pakistan, you can almost see a desperation on the part of American officials to expose to the rest of the world our spiritual side, and to show that we are not just about war and material things. State Department officials were feeling overwhelmed by criticism, not just because of the war in Vietnam, but also because of other militaristic ventures — their support of dictators, their involvement in coups — so they desperately tried to communicate a different side of America, but the archives show that this didn’t work. The audiences see to that.
There are some wonderful newspaper articles on Mahalia Jackson in India in which nothing is written about America being spiritual — instead they write that Jackson represents black America and a black American version of Christianity, and that she and other black Americans have redeemed Christianity after hundreds of years of abuse by white imperialists like Britain and the United States. This is not exactly what the State Department had in mind. While they were trying to show that America is spiritual, the audiences saw it very specifically as an African American form of spirituality and religion, and strongly identified with the performers because they were seen as people who also had to struggle for justice and civil rights.
JJM The State Department also began promoting the work of more adventurous artists. Concerning this you wrote, “By bringing cutting-edge jazz into cultural exchanges, the State Department helped to elevate such artists as [Charles] Mingus and [Ornette] Coleman to the status of international icons of rebellion.” This must have fueled an interesting debate within the United States concerning the funding of these tours, and of the arts in general
PVE Absolutely. This is a very fascinating twist on the later tours, and in particular those performances that were put together with promoter George Wein of Newport Jazz Festival fame during the early seventies. While they only went on for a few years, they were spectacular festivals performed throughout Eastern Europe that breathed new institutional life into the tours. By this time, since the United States was being overwhelmed by the war in Vietnam and the criticisms of their foreign policy — as well as from the conservative attacks on the cultural programs within the country — the State Department had overtly stepped back from doing the long tours of the earlier years.
Duke Ellington spent three months in the Middle East — a fourth month was scheduled but Kennedy was assassinated — and Armstrong spent three months traveling throughout Africa. Both were expensive tours that the Department decided, among other reasons, they could no longer afford. They then began working with Wein and were able to piggyback on some of the privately sponsored performances — mostly in Eastern Europe — that featured an incredible array of musicians. The result is that they got certain individuals involved who would not have otherwise been chosen. Mingus, for example, would never have gone on a State Department-sponsored tour of three or four months once his politics and sensibilities were closely scrutinized. It is not that Ellington or Armstrong were controllable — there are wonderful ways in which they took tours in their own direction — but they still represented a style and a generation the State Department could deal with. These tours made it possible for musicians who would not have otherwise been selected by the Department to play, and an ironic twist is that it ends up sort of supporting and promoting these musicians as international symbols of rebellion.
JJM Were the Soviets deploying their artists in similar parts of the world?
PVE Yes. The Soviets had a very extensive cultural program. From the beginning they put more resources into their cultural programs, so the State Department tours, to a large degree, were set up as a direct response to those of the Soviets. In places where jazz was appealing to young audiences, the Soviets did not do well by comparison. That of course is an entirely different issue, because there was great admiration for Soviet dance and Soviet music, whether in folk or classical forms. The committees responsible for distributing American culture very overtly talked about how this country had an inferiority complex about American art, at least in terms of the classics. It was felt that America could not compete with the Bolshoi, but the Russians could not compete with jazz. This was our secret weapon, and this is what we were going to promote.
JJM You wrote, “We may no longer have the option of voting for the late John Birks Gillespie for president, but we can recognize the importance of the creativity of musicians, poets, and artists in crafting humane and just relationships to the world. We can remember Dave Brubeck’s observation that sending a jazz combo abroad costs a great deal less than the tip of a fighter plane’s wing.” How can you do this in the modern world?
PVE As hard as this is to imagine, it really comes down to fighting for an accountable and democratic foreign policy. Virtually all of the musicians who played these early tours emerged as passionate supporters of government funding for the arts, and of music education in a broader sense. Brubeck, Gillespie, Goodman, Clark Terry and others saw that many of the countries they visited made art an integral part of their culture through government funding, whereas in America, they experienced something quite different. While there was some support in the United States for the arts, it was frequently controversial. The artists also experienced first hand the power of interactions, and were able to use their newfound positions of authority as jazz ambassadors to demand democracy and accountability from their government. So, how possible is that to achieve in the modern world? It is a very tough question.
JJM Regarding using culture as propaganda, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, America still had the ability to a degree to control the culture it exported because the Internet did not yet exist, nor did the sophisticated distribution of Hollywood films — at least on a large scale. Now, however, it is virtually impossible for a government entity to control what we want to communicate about ourselves to people who may still be impressionable.
PVE That is certainly true. It is complicated by the accessibility of our entire culture by way of the Internet, or just because of a far more sophisticated industry-system of production and distribution.
Getting back to the discussion of the jazz tours, at the heart of them was that the government could not control what they were exporting, because the artists themselves were not controllable. So, in some sense I don’t know if the State Department could ever export American culture that can be controlled. I don’t know if there is anything popular in America that is also uniquely American — as jazz was — that the Department would want to export today.
I certainly hope it is possible to imagine a different set of values and priorities in the United States so government money can be used for creative and human needs — whether those needs are in education, health care, or art. Certainly during other moments in America’s history a greater emphasis has been placed on these very important areas. While it was never always sufficient, there were times when there was greater funding for the arts, just as there were times when there was greater attention to other human needs, as opposed to today, where the priorities are tied to the military and to the pursuit of wealth for fewer and fewer people.
JJM Like everything else, culture is tied into economics. That is certainly the case with the entertainment business of today, which is totally market driven. If violent action films consistently bring a box office of one hundred million dollars to the studios, that is what Hollywood will continue to produce, and our interest in being entertained by violence may be what gets communicated to the rest of the world about the soul of America.
PVE Some of the more savvy observers of Hollywood have said that the reason Baywatch was the most popular show in the Middle East is not necessarily because people like it more, but because it was such an inexpensive program to purchase. I am not sure of the exact economics, but let’s say that if Law and Order cost twenty dollars per segment to broadcast, it would cost three cents to broadcast Baywatch.
JJM They would be paying too much …
PVE Yes, but lo and behold, everyone in the Middle East watches Baywatch because it costs virtually nothing for the broadcasters to air. Again, it is hard not to be incredibly skeptical about what the United States government may do with art, but I believe there is a very important place for it so the most immediate crude market determination does not drive what gets distributed and seen around the world. Today, culture in many different senses has been reduced to a very narrow market, and it is now the military that receives government subsidies. I believe something is very askew with that.
“The jazz ambassadors represented hope and possibility, not a smug claim to a perfected democracy. They articulated their connection to the world as artists and humans, not a sense of uniqueness or superority. While a jazz combo may not have been a model for a government, it did symbolize the qualities of a vibrant democracy. The jazz artists expressed individual excellence within a profound dependence on and accountability to a collective. Their improvisatory techniques and openness to new musics celebrated the unexpected, and hence the possibilities of democracy and global citizenship rather than the scripted power of empire.”
– Penny Von Eschen
About Penny Von Eschen
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
PVE My honest answer is that my childhood hero was a baseball player, Rod Carew, the great hitter who played second base for the Minnesota Twins, and then later became the first baseman for the California Angels. The only possible meaning I have for this is that he was my first archive. I was a great baseball fan when I was in about fifth grade, so much so that I knew every player on the National and American League rosters — and everyone coming up from the minors as well. I grew up in Minnesota and was a big Twins fan during a time they were quite good, and collected all the newspaper articles about Carew, their best player.
Penny M. Von Eschen is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
A sampling of reviews (from the publisher web site)
“Satchmo Blows Up the World is a fine contribution to the growing literature on the broader contours of cold war cultural politics…The stories [Von Eschen] tells are marvelous and often touching…But what comes across even more strongly in Satchmo Blows Up the World is the flagrant paradox of a marginalized people sent abroad to sing the praises of the very country that marginalized them…Perhaps even more than the Americanization of global culture, the enduring legacy of cold war musical diplomacy was the internationalization of jazz.“
– Brian Morton, The Nation
“With verve and candor, Penny Von Eschen tells the story of how the U.S. tried to deploy the hot and cool sounds of jazz as a not-so-secret weapon in the Cold War. Little did they realize that the ‘jambassadors’ would not be the State Department’s pawns. Von Eschen captures the tensions between U.S. foreign policy goals and the musicians’ imperative to swing, and in so doing has uncovered terrific stories and offered fresh insights into the postwar world.”
– Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
“My quartet was one of the first jazz groups to participate in the U.S. State Department’s ‘people-to-people’ program. We understood, of course, that we played a role in Cold War diplomacy, but unfortunately, we were unaware of the part we played in the overall strategy. Penny Von Eschen’s book, Satchmo Blows Up the World, successfully defines that role within the social and historic perspective of U.S. race relations and Cold War policy.”
– Dave Brubeck, jazz musician & composer
“The experiences playing around the world of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and other ‘jazz ambassadors’–unpredictable, complicated, inspiring, and sometimes hilarious–come alive in Von Eschen’s elegantly researched and insightful story.”
– Thomas Borstelmann, author of The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena
“In this bold and brilliant book, Von Eschen exposes a hidden history of the Cold War while teaching lessons about links between art and politics that have tremendous relevance for the troubled present and the foreboding future.”
– George Lipsitz, author of American Studies in a Moment of Danger
Penny Von Eschen products at Amazon.com
This interview took place on August 22, 2005
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Hip: The History author John Leland
# Text from publisher.