Louis Armstrong and his wife Lucille pose in front of the Sphinx near Cairo, Egypt in 1961. (Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum) (PBS)

‘The Jazz Ambassadors’: When Dizzy and Satchmo Diplomacy Swung the Cold War

Filmmaker Hugo Berkeley, historian Penny M. Von Eschen, and musician Darius Brubeck talk with Will Layman about the State Department's decision to send Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and others around the world to help win the Cold War.

The Jazz Ambassadors
Hugo Berkeley
May 2018
Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War
Penny M. Von Eschen
Harvard University Press
Sep 2006

One of the most astonishing stories of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union involves a trumpet. Or, really, many trumpets.

In 1956, tensions between the world’s two nuclear superpowers were on a knife’s edge. A popular uprising in Hungary led to a Soviet invasion, for example. Both the United States and the USSR were being led by new leaders (Eisenhower and Khrushchev), with thermonuclear warheads hanging in the balance.

When Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. disobeyed the wishes of his government to attend the Bandung Conference of newly independent Asian and African states who were generally seen as not only anti-colonialist but also aligned agains the United States, few expected him to return as a hero. But having argued in favor of American values relative to the communist USSR and Peoples Republic of China, Powell returned to congressional applause. Which is one reason why the State Department was listening carefully when he suggested that the nation’s best weapon in the Cold War was not nuclear but musical. Specifically, he suggested that the United States send trumpeter and bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie abroad as a cultural ambassador.

This is how the “Jazz Ambassadors” program started, a topic that is explored in nuanced detail in a new documentary film, The Jazz Ambassadors, by Hugo Berkeley, which was first broadcast on PBS on 4 May and is currently available for streaming.

Representing America with Honest Patriotism

The film explores a key tension in this remarkable program, which paid Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bennie Goodman, Dave Brubeck, and many others to travel to the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South Asia, the Far East, Africa, and South America in an attempt to promote US values, particularly in the huge swath of non-aligned nations that were recently liberated and also predominantly non-white. The Soviet Union sneered at U. claims of moral superiority on human rights and democracy by pointing to American racism. Who better, then, to represent the US than its dynamic, brilliant, and celebrated practitioners of jazz, the nations original art form?

From the start, the film shows, the musicians were actively negotiating the complexity of their being used to argue for progress in combatting racism when they were well aware that their country remained a place where African-Americans were still the victims of ingrained and institutional discrimination. Gillespie’s tour, the very first in 1956, was criticized in openly racist terms by members of Congress and citizens even as it was a success, attracting huge, admiring crowds across the world. Armstrong, the most internationally famous jazz musician of the time, initially refused the State Department’s invitation because of the Eisenhower administration’s slow reaction to Governor Faunus’s refusal to integrate the Little Rock, Arkansas schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of EducationBrown v. Board of Education. The Jazz Ambassadors does an outstanding job of seeing these complications through the eyes of the musicians, the State Department, and audiences around the world. “The real question of the film”, explains the director, “was—how did the musicians reconcile this dilemma of being patriotic and being honest to their own struggle?”

A critical source and inspiration for the film is the book Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Harvard University Press, 2006) by Penny M. Von Eschen. Director Hugo Berkeley came at this project as someone very interested in African independence and decolonization. “I had this idea to make a film about African music at the time of decolonization. I was in Africa for the 50th anniversary of independence and saw pictures of Louis Armstrong playing with E.T. Mensah in Ghana. I wondered how that came to be. I read Penny’s book and realized what a rich story the ‘Jazz Ambassadors’ was.”

Von Eschen appears as an expert commentator in the documentary, providing analysis and context. Her book explains in detail how Eisenhower and his secretary of state John Foster Dulles saw race as “America’s Achilles heel” in winning the ideological part of the war and came to realize that cultural diplomacy involving African-Americans (and their art) could counter that. But Von Eschen does not see the musicians’ part in the program as cynical.

“The musicians created something completely different than what was assumed by the government,” she explains. “The musicians brought a buoyant sense of democracy to the tours, and that’s really what’s successful.” While some musicians involved were highly skeptical of US foreign policy and others were more in tune with an American need to win the cold war, “they all saw it as a great venue for music”—and most also saw it as a vehicle for the civil rights struggle at home.

“The weapon that we will use is the cool one.” — Dizzy Gillespie (PBS)

Why The Jazz Ambassadors Makes Sense Today

The current moment doesn’t mark a significant anniversary of this program, but the timing seems right for this film, agree Berkeley and Von Eschen.

“There is a very genuine and understandable nostalgia for this because things are so horrific right now,” suggests Von Eschen. “That the U.S. would want to understand another culture? That these utterly brilliant, creative people were representing the U.S. and that their work was a big part of the culture? The idea that things weren’t always this way and that creative people could have a place in diplomacy is enticing.”

Berkeley notes that “the film is more relevant now than in 2012 when I set out to make it. We find ourselves in a new cold war era, with Russia and the U.S. squaring off in many different ways again. It’s also a period of increased racial tension in the U.S., with issues coming back that we thought were resolved and the rest of the world is wondering how the U.S. is struggling with that.”

The film highlights the fact that the program began under a Republican administration. Eisenhower was impressed by the fact that a foreign tour of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess featuring African-American performers had been a big hit, and he had advisors around him—not only Dulles but also Senator Fulbright, Edward R. Murrow of CBS News, and Congressman Powell—who convinced him that culture could be an important tool for foreign policy. Berkeley says, “It makes you reflect on the role of the people who surround a president and, today, who might be doing that?”

According to the film and Von Eschen’s book, there was a wide range of attitudes inside the State Department at the time, including foreign service officers who well understood the point of view of the musicians. When some officers offered to brief Gillespie on how to respond to questions about racism in America that might arise on the tour he is said to have responded, “I’ve got 300 years of briefings on how my people have been treated.” The tour went forward. To acclaim.

“The musicians,” Von Eschen explains, “were not following a script.” And that may account for the appeal of the story in 2018. And, in an era when the US government as run by Donald Trump seems deeply skeptical of diplomacy writ large, leaving an unprecedented number of embassies understaffed, the subject of bold cultural diplomacy may simply hit a nostalgic note.

“The musicians were bringing their own creativity to U.S. diplomacy in a stark contrast to today’s racist, xenophobic rejection of culture and lack of respect for other human beings and what they think,” says Von Eschen. “It is only a trick of nostalgia if this is just longing for the past, but if there is a recognition that this was an edgy, creative moment, perhaps all of us can be inspired by the deeply creative actions in the past.

Duke Ellington (PBS)

The Magic of the Music Itself

As much as anything, The Jazz Ambassadors underlines the fact that the music itself—jazz—an art form created from a collision of African rhythms and sensibilities with European forms, was just the right bridge across many cultures.

Berkeley, in a couple of key places, allows the music to play and to tell the story on its own. “There were two things I wanted to do in making the film. First, listen to the musicians and their music. They are the emotional core of the film. Second, as much as possible, I tried to let the music play and to give each musician their moment to be themselves musically in the film.” The most emotional musical moment is, surely, when Louis Armstrong plays the classic Fats Waller song “Black and Blue” for the president of Ghana, who is brought to tears by an African-American story that universalizes racism to a global level. Though this moment was not part of one of the State Department-sponsored tours, it demonstrates perfectly how the jazz musicians’ honesty about their situation, embodied by the music itself, was the finest diplomacy possible.

Beyond the politics of the musicians’ lives, these tours also highlighted an art form that has proven to be globally beloved and globally adopted. Von Eschen reminds us that jazz had become well-known around the world partly because of Willis Conniver’s Voice of America broadcasts, particularly in the USSR and the Eastern Block. She also notes that the American musicians themselves often experienced their music as “an international music, and their travel reinforced that. Before the tours they were already involved in music from around the world. The trumpeter Clark Terry declared jazz an ‘international music’,” she notes.

Darius Brubeck, a jazz pianist himself who accompanied his father, Dave, on his State Department tour as a child, believes jazz has a special position as a global phenomenon. “I see evidence of there being a local jazz scene everywhere. What’s really important is that people are playing it.”

Brubeck explains that several things are inherent in the music’s history, traditions, and structure that made it ideal for crossing borders. “A big part of the jazz tradition,” he notes, “is great flexibility and openness.” That adaptability comes with a shared set of touchstones as well, he points out, but this common knowledge creates opportunities for flexible expression. “There is a shared knowledge of repertoire, of standards that everyone knows. Classical music has a similar thing, but wherever you hear Braham’s Fourth, it is Braham’s Fourth. Whereas ‘Stella by Starlight’ can be fast, slow, boppish, and so on. Within the music itself there is a flexibility of expression. A virtuosic saxophonist can play with a middling pianist, and it still can work together. You can be a contributor to that performance, providing something valuable. Your only job is to play what you play and to be yourself.”

This openness and curiosity was present in the musicians on these tours, Von Eschen believes. “The musicians are so curious about what they can learn, what they can bring back to their music, how they could interact. Jazz works to engage with other people. Its call-and-response and improvisation, its conversational structure makes jazz communicative and transformative.”
Additionally, the inherent flexibility is not defined by any one culture. “The reason jazz continues is because it’s really a variety of styles that are available,” explains Brubeck. “I have all of the past available to me when I play. I can draw on just about any music I’ve ever heard. A James Brown lick might pop up while I’m playing ‘My Funny Valentine’. And these references are trans-national, global”. Brubeck adds that “jazz has a lot of hybridity built into it”, with many streams feeding into it—rhythms that are rooted in Africa, for example, and even “Arabic music—if you listen to the melisma on top and the swing underneath it, you hear a jazz flavor.”

Berkeley identifies another element that helped to make jazz so translatable in the ’50s and ’60s. “It spoke to a sense of modernism. It wasn’t the old classical tradition,” he explains. “In many countries it was allied to political change. In Eastern Europe it was connected to modern political change. In African, the colonial regimes were connected to military music, but at the ground level you had music bubbling up that looked to jazz. Jazz was the African soundtrack to liberation.”

Brubeck agrees. “Jazz has always expressed social and political viewpoints. We are usually thinking of instrumental music, so jazz is not generally reliant on words. It is less reducible and therefore can be deeper, more direct from the source. You can’t misunderstand the sounds coming from a trumpet the way words might be misunderstood.”

“Jazz is a modernist form,” notes Brubeck, “and is historically related to urbanization. “I spent years in South Africa, and jazz was completely how people signaled that they were urban creatures, people who are used to dealing not just with a village but with a city with different ethnic groups and languages.”

In Poland, the music is directly related to liberation. “I was in Poland twice this year,” explains Brubeck, “and so much of what’s happened in Poland since 1958 can be referenced to the 1958 tour that Dave was on in that country. If you go to the Solidarity Museum, you see the cover of a 1958 concert program talking about the beginning of Westernization, reaching for freedom via Voice of America. It planted an aspiration for freedom.”

A Future for Musical Diplomacy?

With this film now out in the world, it seems fair to wonder if there is a future for “jazz diplomacy”—even in a world where jazz no longer stands as a form of popular art.

“There’s other music that is more popular today,” Brubeck says, “but only jazz has that instant communication between people who don’t know each other.” Today, he notes, jazz really “isn’t American anymore. It’s nothing exceptional to meet a Swedish jazz musician or a Japanese jazz musician. It’s really a shared art form. Maybe it’s not a universal language, but it is universally accessible.”

Von Eschen recently talked to someone who does cultural affairs programming at the the State Department today. “It’s a totally different world. Today it’s driven by the embassies out in the world.” She adds that the role of culture in diplomacy is complicated by the fact that, in the current era, “diplomacy is under fire. But it probably always has been. This way of reaching out to other cultures was always embattled.”

The Jazz Ambassadors may play some role in reigniting a place for this music in reaching others. “I hope the film will connect with audiences once they get to see it,” says Berkeley. “I hope it will start a conversation.” The score for the film was written and played by a 12-person band. “We hope to screen it at global jazz festivals and then do some educational workshops bringing the musicians from our band to work with local musicians.”

Was the work of the “jazz ambassadors” ultimately successful? The Cold War may not have been won by trumpets and clarinets, but a network of global music—and conversation through that music—was most certainly fostered.
Berkeley notes that there is a global “network of jazz festivals—and every community without fail has its jazz enthusiasts. It may be more true today than it every was.”

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