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John Ferguson on American Voices: Musical Diplomacy

Franz A. Matzner By

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What is amazing is how easily traditional musicians all over the world take to [jazz]. Take to improvising together. It
That tour ended up being a tour to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, to the Baltic states which are now completely normal places to go, but at the time were just sealed off in so many ways from American culture, musicians, and cultural exchanges, and I found myself giving performances of people like William Bolcom and John Adams, George Gershwin, and Eubie Blake to audiences that had never heard the music live before, had never heard an American live before. We were like these exotic, amazing creatures that everyone had heard about all of their lives because we were the great enemy, but no one had ever had any contact with us. Audiences were like these blank slates, or dry sponges, and they were absorbing anything you could offer them. They were so curious about the outside world.

That got me to thinking about how, in the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Eastern Germany and so forth, [they] really needed what I had to offer as a specialist in American music. And two years later, in 1992, American Voices was born as a not-for-profit organization. We immediately started working with the American Information Service and the new embassies and consulates that were sprouting up all over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

AAJ: Did the idea to form an organization and formalize the process of musical exchange come as a bolt from the blue, or did it come in stages?

JF: It came in stages. The first stage was basically as a classical pianist, performing with the other singers and instrumentalists I worked with, to bring our programming to Eastern Europe. Then we started doing our jazz program, and in 1998 our geographical expansion began with a tour to the Middle East and the Gulf countries for the George Gershwin centennial, and that was a Gershwin, Broadway, classical program, and then in 2000 we started going to Africa and Asia.

AAJ: What was the biggest challenge in getting things off the ground?

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