Penny Von Eschen, author of Satchmo Blows Up the World

August 22nd, 2005

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.

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photo Louis Armstrong House

armstrongcongo

Louis Armstrong, Republic of the Congo, 1960

“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

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Nomad, by Louis Armstrong (from The Real Ambassadors)

 

 

 

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.

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Penny M. Von Eschen is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

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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

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“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

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“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

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“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

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“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

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Penny Von Eschen products at Amazon.com

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This interview took place on August 22, 2005

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Hip: The History author John Leland

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Other Jerry Jazz Musician interviews

# Text from publisher.

 

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