Penny von Eschen Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War
Harvard University Press
Many people believe that the United States won the Cold War not by foreign policy, but by "blue jeans and jazz." For those of us born in the Watergate era, it seems inconceivable that jazz could have that much influence as an agent for global change. However, the State Department-sponsored tours of the sixties and early seventies were enormously popular overseas and successfully presented the United States in a positive light. The story behind these tours is captured in Satchmo Blows Up the World by Penny M. Von Eschen. In it she traces the development of jazz as a key cultural export as well as the decline of its potency, both here and abroad. But, as this new book shows, the tours had effects far beyond what the State Department ever intended.
It all started with Willis Conover's Voice of America broadcasts, which featured jazz programming and were hugely popular overseas. Although Conover is in the background of events for much of the book, he is a key figure in jazz history that deserves the attention he receives. The success of this program led directly to foreign tours by some of jazz's most highly regarded artists, like Ellington, Armstrong, Goodman, and even Mingus, as well as recreations of the popular Newport Festivals.
Why jazz? As a musical form, it represented the democratic principles that the country was trying to promote and, due to the large percentage of African-Americans taking part in the tour, also projected the U.S. as an all-inclusive nation. Von Eschen also asserts that jazz was seen as an art from that could compete with classical and dance in terms of respectability.
Starched shirts like Eisenhower found, in exuberant personalities like Gillespie, a perfect avenue for promoting democracy and American culture. Even Richard Nixon, a huge jazz fan, had faith in jazz even when its popularity began to fade, and thus during his presidency many artists at the end of their life still played for eager audiences (in fact, this may be one of the most flattering portraits of Nixon in print.)
The original purpose of such tours was to promote goodwill in strategic countries like Africa and the Soviet Union. However, whereas the State Department was interested in having these musicians play in front of the elite, Dizzy, Louis, and Ellington were much more interested in playing to the common folk. Frequently these musicians would find enthusiastic jazz musicians to jam with or simply soaked in the local music that percolated through the streets. This exchange of musical ideas benefited those in the States through such masterpieces as Ellington's Far East Suite and Dave Brubeck's series of Jazz Impressions records. Thus Von Eschen points out that for many of the musicians, there was a true exchange of ideas occurring.
However, during the sixties the U.S. was seen abroad as a country in turmoil, due to the civil rights movement and the government's lackluster response. Part of the agenda for the tours was to show the world that everything was under control, again by using African-American musicians as ambassadors. However, no one planned on the artists being as critical of the U.S. governments handling if this issue as they were. Ironically, this anger at injustice was precisely what appealed to the people in the oppressed countries and made the tours more successful.
Just as the popularity of jazz waned in America, the State Department tours grew fewer and fewer and jazz was phased out in favor of R&B and rock'n'roll. Today, the jazz tours are hard to envision in a world where Baywatch and Britney Spears are America's most popular exports.
Von Eschen's book is a compelling look at a turning point in American history from the perspective of the jazz tours that were an outgrowth of foreign policy. Usually a small part of any biography on any of these musicians - very few were doing their most influential of famous work at the time - she has devoted an entire book to the subject. Far from being tours of foreign countries, the musicians took the opportunity to interact with the local culture and thus achieved the goals of the State Department far better than intended. Taking an intellectual approach leavened with dry wit, Von Eschen has written an interesting and insightful book on foreign policy that will appeal to jazz fans if for no other reason than it captures a time when jazz played a large part in shaping the world's culture.