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Travelling the “Rhythm Road”: Jazz Ambassadorship in the Twenty-First Century

By Published: May 30, 2010

Dangers Along the Road

Sometimes, the musicians visit countries where war and other calamities pose an ever-present threat, even to the musicians themselves. Horner recalls that, on a prior non-Rhythm Road journey in Kyrgyzstan, the group was held up at gunpoint by the police. "The language barrier complicated things, and it was scary. We were afraid we would be arrested or even shot." In adjacent Tjikistan, "with all the political unrest, it was so intimidating, who knows if anyone will go back there again any time soon." Then, "when we drove around Bosnia it was beautiful, but the Embassy told us there were land mines all around." But even in such tense situations, mutual discussion and correction of misconceptions can occur. Says, Horner, "When we were in Belgrade, we witnessed many of the buildings that had been blown up by the U.S. Air Force when Clinton was in office, trying to stop Milosevic from invading Bosnia. We had some interesting political discussions. Some of the people didn't know why the U.S. 'invaded' their country. You realize how important the media and the press is for the knowledge of the public. A lot of people weren't aware of the whole story. They just thought we invaded them for no reason."

But encounters with danger are the exception rather than the rule. Many places, though poor or undeveloped, are safe for travel, and part of the responsibility of the host emabassies is to facilitate the musicians' comfort and safety. Horner's memories of touring Paraguay, Colombia, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Chile with Roseanna Vitro were not of danger but of the music, the awesome mountain scenery, and the warmth of the local people.

The Rhythm Road: Dana Leong in Vietnam, Dec 2007

Encounters between American and Local Music and Musicians

Perhaps what is unique about The Rhythm Road form of diplomacy are the experiences and exchanges that occur between the American and local music and musicians. To begin with, the tour bands encounter musical instruments and styles they're not familiar with. Porter notes: "In some countries, they may not even have pianos—that instrument doesn't exist in some places! Some countries don't have drum sets. In Africa, as you can imagine, they all had drums. But a typical jazz drum set is nowhere to be found. But one of the exciting things in Africa is that we'd always have some amazing drummers come out. And our drummer, Quincy Davis, was able to learn so much from them." So, if you hear a jazz musician use an unusual instrument, it's possible he found it on a Rhythm Road or similar expedition! Saxophonist Dave Liebman

Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
serendipitously found a woodwind instrument with a hauntingly beautiful sound on a vacation trip to North Africa that he uses on some of his compositions.

Sometimes though, the differences in instrumentation can be daunting. Horner tells us that "New York drummers are into the open sound of the drums, but when you travel, as in Germany, the bass drum actually has a hole in the front for the microphone and is stuffed with laundry and pillows, because that's their idea of what a bass drum sounds like—they don't understand the open tone. But it's a good challenge to go up and not play your instrument and make something happen." The point is that the need to adapt often results in learning and creativity. After all, jazz itself is about improvising!

Even more challenging can be the differences in the music itself. At some of the concerts, local musicians are welcome to come up and jam. Says Horner, "Sometimes we play with guys from the local area. They play very differently from us. Like one guy played the clarinet, and even the structure of the bar was different than ours. He couldn't play in 4/4! We made it through the blues somehow. Swingin' in four is not part of his culture. And these people play fast, and the people get up and dance, and we had a hard time following their rhythms!" (Think of Dave Brubeck's famous "Take Five," in 5/4 time, and you realize how much 4/4 is instilled in Western ears, making that tune a breakthrough!) The musicians' ears are stretched by these multicultural jam sessions, which play an increasingly important role in the development of jazz in the "global village."

Musical as well as cultural and diplomatic exchange is thus facilitated by the Rhythm Road. As Porter points out, "Jazz is a 'sponge.' You soak up things from all cultures. For example, in West Africa they have this thing called the kakuzi rhythm. Or another country might have a scale you've never heard before. And you can incorporate all that stuff into your music. And jazz has always been that way. You mix that with Western influences, and you get something new. That's why jazz is great diplomacy: it breaks those boundaries. It's a great vehicle for people to improvise, and to participate you don't even necessarily have to speak the same language. And the language of jazz itself is always growing through these new influences."

Running the Show

Behind the scenes of these experiences are the logistics and administration of The Rhythm Road, the engines that make it all happen. For one thing, for such a program to succeed, the musicians need to be selected not only in terms of their musical approach and ability but also their personal stamina for travel and their ability to communicate and interact with folks of diverse languages and cultures. The Rhythm Road musicians must also be good diplomats. Susan John described the selection process as follows: "Each year we have a panel of judges which does not include Rhythm Road or State Department staff. For this panel, we like to choose among musician educators who can assess the candidates in terms of both their music and their capabilities as educators. For example, at the end of October, 2009, we convened a panel of Damian Smeed, who is a gospel musician with experience in other genres; Don Braden

Don Braden
Don Braden
sax, tenor
; and Don Zappee, a New Orleans musician and arranger; as well as myself, a State Department representative, and The Rhythm Road staff." So the choice of groups is based on the combination of musical, educational, and communicative resources the musicians bring with them. This emphasis on the musician as "whole person" may be one reason the program has been so successful and has led to many requests for repeat visits.

The Lincoln Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis in particular are crucial to the progam's inner working. Says John, "Part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) mandate is to bring jazz internationally to the world. Lincoln Center has twelve individual constituents such as the Metropolitan Opera, the NYC Ballet, the Juilliard School, and so on, and JALC is one of those independent entities that fall under the Lincoln Center umbrella. In 1987, we were a series of summer concerts. In 1992 we became a department of Lincoln Center, and in 1996, we were granted full-fledged constituency." The connection of The Rhythm Road to Lincoln Center, with the latter's incredible concentration of musical and performing arts forces, provides a context that allows The Rhythm Road to thrive. The multifaceted performance context fosters a rich understanding of music as an art form that incorporates diverse formats and cultures and is based on both tradition and innovation.

Susan John thinks that Wynton Marsalis deserves major credit for the success of Rhythm Road. "He's involved in everything we decide to do. Regarding Rhythm Road, he was involved in the original liason with it, and also in every aspect since then. When we looked to program expansion, he was at the table when we talked about additional genres such as zydeco and gospel as to how to best showcase American music. He was also a judge on the selection committee two years ago. He was involved philosophically, but now our concerns are more structural, so he's less involved with that. And he doesn't go on the tours themselves." Nonetheless, musician Horner believes that Marsalis has had a very positive influence on the project. "He follows everything that's going on. He had a lot to do with our teaching and master classes. Wynton said to us, 'As you're out there travelling in other countries, and people strike up political conversations, don't apologize for America, talk about the music.' Wynton was right. This is not about the politics but about the music and the people who are out there livin' the life."

As accomplished as Marsalis has proved himself in so many arenas, he is a controversial figure to many jazz artists, who feel that his musical conservatism (at times he seems to have ignored advances in jazz beyond New Orleans and Duke Ellington) combined with his fame and influence have held jazz back. Horner thinks he may have changed in that respect. He remembers a recording date they did where Marsalis opened up to him. "We were working on a recording put together by Ted Nash

Ted Nash
Ted Nash
sax, tenor
called Rhyme or Reason, with a double quartet: a jazz quartet and a string quartet. Wynton is an amazing musician. He did an incredible job on that recording. Then, on a break, he took me aside and said some things to me that were moving and surprising, like, 'Man, you're really great, you really swing hard. But you're afraid of me—I can feel it.' I said, 'I'm not afraid of you, I just know you only from the press.' And he replied, 'Yeah, a lot of that stuff they said was true. But I'm not that person any more. I've grown up.' And he said, 'I really appreciate your music; you really make it happen.' And we just moved on from there." As reflected in The Rhythm Road musical programming, Marsalis' "confession" of change seems to have been quite sincere. Although there isn't much in Rhythm Road that could be called avant-garde, the jazz groups selected are contemporary and at the cutting edge of the mainstream. Moreover, the same is true with all the Jazz at Lincoln Center programming under the aegis of Marsalis, such as at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola and the Rose Hall. So maybe the jazz world needs to update its impression of Marsalis. In any case, he is one reason why Rhythm Road has worked so well.

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