Jazz Ambassadors: Photography Exhibit to Document History of Jazz Ambassadorship

Franz A. Matzner BY

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We would be delighted if museum goers have that same experience and are touched by this in the same fashion as we were. It encouraged us to learn about jazz in its many manifestations.
—Dr. Curtis Sandberg, exhibit curator
Jam Sessions: America's Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World
Meridian International Center
Meridian's Cafritz Galleries
White-Meyer House,
1624 Crescent Place, NW,
Washington, DC.
April 3-July 13, 2008

Jazz has long played a role in cultural exchange and diplomacy, whether through official programs or simply due to its nature as a distinctly American, flexible art form that has both absorbed influences from across the globe, and in turn impacted music internationally.

On April 3rd, 2008 Washington, D.C.'s Meridian International Center will unveil a new exhibit exploring this history, focusing on the official exchange programs operated by the U.S. Department of State that sent jazz musicians abroad as cultural ambassadors throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Titled Jam Sessions: America's Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World, the heart of this ambitious project is nearly one hundred photographs culled from various archives and collections across the country, many of which will be premiered at the event. Supporting the images are various documents, a panelist discussion, and musical performances by Dave Brubeck and the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet. Following the initial showing in Washington, D.C., the exhibit will go on a fifteen-stop national tour, with an international component currently under consideration.

The genesis of the project grew out of the Meridian International Center's mission to promote international understanding through the exchange of people, ideas and the arts. "In many respects, it's the quintessence of what Meridian is all about," says exhibit curator Dr. Curtis Sandberg, vice-president of exhibitions for the Center. "What better thing than sending America's premier musicians around the world to make friends?"

Birthed from a few casual conversations, the project progressed quickly once the decision to go ahead was made, with support coming from historians, archivists, and particularly the Brubeck Institute.

Explains Sandberg, "As we got deeper and deeper into the history of the tours, it became pretty obvious that there were two different bodies of thought. The State Department was very keen to have these jazz musicians meet elites internationally—current and potential leaders—and the artists, for their part, went along perfectly comfortably, largely with the meet and greet. But they were jazz musicians, so they wanted to find local cats and they wanted to jam."

To capture these two threads, four criteria ultimately were used to select the final mix of photographs. The images had to include musicians with notable elites, musicians playing with local groups in recognizably international settings, concert action moments, or travel shots.

A doctor of anthropology and archaeology, Sandberg spent countless hours sifting through thousands and thousands of pictures, digging in dusty boxes, and working with archivists to discover, identify, and through meticulous digital restoration, refurbish the diverse images that eventually made it into the show. "There are things that you found at the bottom of a box that was at the end of twenty-three boxes...of 1983, 1984 Dizzy pictures and suddenly there was a little envelope of 1950s snapshots, at 3:45 when I was about to give up and go home. It was a great surprise discovery."

The result of this arduous process is a collection that visually recreates the Jazz Ambassador experience, capturing the time, place, and context of the jazz musician's travels, and that Sandberg anticipates will appeal to both older and younger audiences, jazz fans and neophytes alike.

"The concept is that the show should really go out there as a messenger that gets people interested in the subject, young people in particular, who will say, 'My goodness this is a terrific thing we did,' and to realize that cultural diplomacy is an essential component of their future," says Sandberg, who hopes visitors will have an experience similar to his own as he prepared the exhibit. Only a casual jazz fan prior to embarking on this project, his interest in the music has grown throughout the process, leading him to what is clearly a new and passionate appreciation.

"What the exhibit has done is it's given a cultural and historical framework to jazz that I never had before. It's happened to our entire office. We would be delighted if museum goers have that same experience and are touched by this in the same fashion as we were. It encouraged us to learn about jazz in its many manifestations."

The photography exhibit will be followed by panel discussions and a concert on Friday, April 11, 2008.

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