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John Ferguson on American Voices: Musical Diplomacy

By Published: July 24, 2007
On one hand it's hard to organize in places and countries that have been isolated, because there just isn't infrastructure for these kinds of things, media, concert halls, sometimes there is no electricity, sometimes no instruments, or no sound system, all kinds of problems come up. But the enthusiasm and the huge crowds you can bring in make up for all the headaches.

AAJ: Do you think there is an idea out there that you encounter of what jazz is? And does that then match what you present? Are people aware of the current landscape of jazz, or does it shift after they experience your program?

JF: When you go to really isolated places, if there is any notion at all of what jazz is, it tends to be knowledge of the great singers. Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday for example. Or people might know the music of Duke Ellington or big-band music, but it tends to be the more traditional kind of jazz from the twenties, thirties, and forties.

But that said, in the former Soviet Union jazz started to penetrate due to Voice of America, so if you go work in Azerbaijan or Kazikstan, the jazz players kind of come into it in the bebop mode and take it from there. You have a very interesting circumstance where they are combining this jazz with their local traditional music, giving it this little accent, which is very fascinating in and of itself, but they didn't learn—the grooves are not in their blood from the beginning, you know? So the shuffles and the grooves from early African-American jazz just weren't in their ears. They got it from the fifties, so they come to it with some sort of gaps in their (pause)groove. You hear that in their rhythm section, in the playing. Those are some of the things we try to work with.

But it's kind of an existential problem. You can't take people who've heard this fifties jazz and been playing in a vacuum, like say in Azerbaijan, and say, "No, no, no, this is how jazz really started and you should play this standard by George Gershwin and you should play it this way first, So it's complicated, and strange.

Baku Big Band, American Voices Caspian Jazz and Blues Festival, Azerbaijan 2003

Then there are countries you go to like Afghanistan, where there just was never any jazz. Or if it was, it was played in a couple hotels in the fifties and sixties. That's how we developed the Jazz Bridges program where we go in and work with them playing their traditional instruments and their traditional music. And provide them a jazz underpinning for their traditional music. Then we show them some standards and styles and work with them over a five or six day program to teach us their traditional music. What is amazing is how easily traditional musicians all over the world take to [jazz]. Take to improvising together. It's really ducks to water. It's always a thrill that once people understand they can be free to play what they want to play, they take off with it.

AAJ: We've seen jazz used in the past for cultural exchange, all the way back to the twenties, and at the height of the Cold War we were sending jazz musicians over as emissaries to present American values—even though segregation was alive and well at home. That was a totally different context, and a fascinating tension existed in presenting American culture in the context of "these are our enemies . Then, as you said, you began American Voices right at the end of that dynamic, but now are bringing musicians to Iraq. I have to imagine that a trip to Iraq now is very different from a trip to Poland was in 1992.

JF: You know, the few places where we have any political resistance to our artistic work are often in Western European countries...from certain ministers of culture, for example. Who might be a little anti-American or anti-Western. But audiences do not hold American musicians accountable for foreign policy or [the] other things that irritate them in their particular country. You go from country to country and the sensibilities change, or even to different parts of the country. If you go to Iraq, for example, where we will be going—I can't be too specific right now for security reasons—but, say, in the Kurdish regions they love the United States. They love us because the United States created a no-fly zone which meant Saddam couldn't attack them anymore. The Kurds view us as their liberators. But if you [went] to Baghdad and left the green zone into the red zone, you'd be dead within a day, at least, because people literally want our heads.

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