During the peak of the Cold War, propaganda was king, and was especially played out in the non-aligned, emerging nation regions of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Responding to what was termed by the U.S. State Department as the Soviet Union’s “gigantic propaganda offensive,” in 1954 President Eisenhower created the Emergency Fund for International Affairs, whose role would be to present American culture abroad for the purpose of demonstrating the benefits of freedom (and capitalism) on artistic expression. According to Penny Von Eschen, author of Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, “Eisenhower resented Europeans’ depiction of the country as a ‘race of materialists’ and was distressed that ‘our successes are described in terms of automobiles and not in terms of worthwhile culture of any kind.'”
Who to spread this “worthwhile culture,” particularly at a time when, in addition to the Soviet propaganda, there was worldwide condemnation of racism in the United States? Dizzy Gillespie was the first. According to Von Eschen, the “precise mechanics of how Ike got Dizzy as the first official jazz ambassador may never be clear…But it is clear that Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the controversial Democratic congressman from Harlem and long-time civil rights advocate, was instrumental in setting up the gig.”
“The glaring contradiction in this strategy,” Von Eschen writes, “was that the U.S. promoted black artists as goodwill ambassadors — symbols of the triumph of American democracy — when America was still a Jim Crow nation.” Eisenhower was “profoundly affected by the widely shared sense that race was America’s Achilles heel internationally.” Because jazz could be promoted by the State Department as an art form unique to America — and invented by black Americans — a jazz tour would “ shield America’s Achilles heel by demonstrating racial equality in action.”
Around the time Gillespie was selected to tour South Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, he had, according to Alyn Shipton, author of Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie, “re-formed his sextet, playing opposite Kai Winding and J. J. Johnson at New York’s Basin Street, and starting 1956 as the headliner at Birdland. He also played the Showboat in Washington, and it was at this point that Powell recommended…that Dizzy, leading a big band, would be a suitable candidate to pioneer a proposed series of overseas tours by American musicians.” Since Gillespie’s big band had to break up in the early 50’s, when the economics didn’t add up for many of the era’s big bands, this State Department tour was an opportunity for the band to work.
Because he was committed to a “Jazz at the Philharmonic” tour of Europe, according to Shipton, “Dizzy placed the task of assembling and rehearsing the band in the capable hands of Quincy Jones, while he entrusted the diplomatic dealings with Washington to his personal manager – wife Lorraine. There were two quite distinct political problems to be dealt with. The first was to ensure that the personnel included a suitably representative mix of musicians to convey the kind of positive image of the United States that the State Department required. In a predominantly black band, white musicians including altoist Phil Woods and trombonist Rod Levitt were also added. (Levitt recalling that being Jewish caused some problems in entering the predominantly Arab states of the Middle East section of the tour and that U.S. officials employed a certain amount of guile in dealing with his visas.) To ensure a female presence in the band, Dizzy saw that, in addition to singer Dotty Saulter, Quincy Jones asked his recent West Coast colleague, Melba Liston, to join the trombone section, bringing with her a number of arrangements.”
Once into the tour, according to one U.S. paper (as reported by Shipton), Gillespie “accomplished, perhaps better than all the ambassadors and envoys and ministers combined, the almost impossible feat of making genuine friends on an intimate personal basis.” Gillespie converted skeptical Iranian audiences into fans, causing one of the Iranian organizers to say “I’ve never seen these people let themselves go like this.” He went on to play in places like Karachi, Pakistan (where he attempted snake-charming), Syria, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Greece. “After a dramatic concert in Athens,” according to Shipton, “during which he fell through a makeshift stage to the amusement and concern of his band, he was carried shoulder high through the nearby streets by cheering crowds.”
Gillespie was eventually followed by the likes of Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and, most famously, Louis Armstrong, whose charismatic appearances led Newsweek to describe him as “an extraordinary kind of roving American ambassador of goodwill.” Who can forget the classic photograph of him being carried through the streets of Leopoldville in the Congo, or the one of him blowing his trumpet among an adoring crowd in Cairo?
“In the most fundamental sense,” Von Eschen writes of the touring musicians, “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.’”
If you would like to read more about the tours of the Jazz Ambassadors, here are a couple of pages of interest:
My interview with Penny Von Eschen, author of Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War
The New York Times’ Jazz Ambassadors Slide Show
For more on Gillespie, in 2004 I hosted a conversation with James Moody and Nat Hentoff called “Remembering Dizzy Gillespie“
Music costs so much less and produces so much better a result than any propaganda or weaponry . . . . There are no warmer feelings than those engendered by music.
—Leonard Bernstein, 1959
Louis Armstrong arriving in Switzerland and performing in Ghana, 1957