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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
John Ferguson >From Afghanistan and Albania, to Venezuela and Vietnam, <A HREF=http://www.americanvoices.org TARGET=_blank>American Voices</A> founder John Ferguson has brought American music, including jazz and blues, to almost every corner of the world, including <A HREF=http://www.americanvoices.org/press/materials/statistics/countries TARGET=_blank>79 countries on five continents</A>. And after traveling back and forth across the globe, what Ferguson is looking for next is simply the latest place where listeners have yet to encounter the diversity of American musical culture. <br /><br /> American Voices, founded in 1993, is a non-profit organization with the simple, daunting mission of bringing American performers and educators to parts of the world isolated by either geography or conflict. Including classical, Broadway musicals, country, hip-hop, jazz and blues, Ferguson's programs use the varied musical traditions of the United States as a powerful tool for cultural diplomacy, and in the process has given many artists and audience members their first chance to witness jazz played live or, in some cases, to hear it for the first time altogether. Through its innovative <A HREF=http://www.americanvoices.org/programs/jazzblues/jazzbridges TARGE=_blank>Jazz Bridges</A> program, a series of workshops and concerts begun in 2002, American Voices has also introduced traditional musicians from around the world to the art of jazz improvisation, and given jazz players the chance to learn the local musical forms and styles. <br /><br /> All About Jazz caught up with Ferguson via cell phone during a layover in Bangkok, where he provided the distinct privilege of an update on his latest projects in Iraq, as well as discussions about the lessons he's learned about music and cultural exchange from over fourteen years of unique experience. <br /><br /> <strong>All About Jazz:</strong> I want to start at the beginning. Let's rewind to right before you founded American Voices. It's the early '90s, the world is changing dramatically, the cold war is over, there's a real sense of optimism and possibility. It's a whole new global landscape. Where were you and what were you doing? <br /><br /> <strong>John Ferguson:</strong> One of the ways this got started is that I moved, at age 31, back to Europe to study, to finish a kind of artist-performers diploma at the conservatory of Toules France. It was March '89, and within six months all of the walls between East and West Europe began to disintegrate. I'm a classical pianist and I was there studying the classic repertoire but at the same time working a lot to perform in Western Europe with an American music program. Out of the blue, later in '89, I got an invitation to Latvia and we went to Latvia in 1990. <br /><br /> 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. <br /><br /> 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. <br /><br /> <strong>AAJ:</strong> 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? <br /><br /> <strong>JF:</strong> 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. <br /><br /> <strong>AAJ:</strong> What was the biggest challenge in getting things off the ground? </div>

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