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State and Mainstream: The Jazz Ambassadors and the U.S. State Department

Karl Ackermann By

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He had no political message, no slogan, no plan to sell or save the world. Yet he, and the other traveling musicians like him had inadvertently served a national purpose. —Iola Brubeck
The Cold War that began in 1947 and ran for forty-four years, had jazz music as its primary deterrent to global tensions, and it did more to foster good will between the U.S. and global citizens than any previous program launched by the U.S. Department of State. Jazz music, even in its Golden Age, was seldom a front page story in the national press so it was a rare publishing event when the Sunday New York Times placed such a story just beneath the fold on November 5, 1955. A dramatic headline, United States Has Secret Sonic Weapon—Jazz, was followed by this even more provocative sub-headline: Europe Falls Captive as Crowds Riot to Hear Dixieland But Vast Propaganda Value Is a Secret to Washington, Too. The author, Felix Belair Jr., was a well-respected Washington-based reporter and editor with the Washington bureau of the newspaper and had covered every presidential campaign from 1936 through 1964. His connection to the subject matter likely had more to do with his knowledge of the U.S. Department of State than with jazz. The essence of the article was Belair's suggestion that the U.S. government would be better served by subsidizing "the travels of jazz bands" rather than spending money on other forms of propaganda to promote democracy. It was an audacious suggestion in the paranoid age of McCarthyism.

The "riots" of the NYT headline referred to occurrences in France and Germany and were driven by a shortage of seating for concerts by Sidney Bechet and an unnamed Dixieland group. The travels of jazz bands that Belair referred to, were the precursors to the State Department's Jazz Ambassador program and the Eurasian appetite for this music was taken far more seriously than most forms of entertainment. Belair points to a general European frustration with the lack of music promotion by American representatives at embassies, consulates, and in other official capacities. He suggests that citizens living behind the Iron Curtain would sometimes risk their lives to smuggle jazz recordings into their countries. In truth, jazz was actively being promoted throughout Europe and beyond. Touring American jazz groups and shows like Porgy and Bess, recordings and radio programs such as the U.S. Department of Defense Armed Forces Network's Jazz International, blanketed the continent.

Early Cultural Exchanges

Cultural diplomacy, in the form of music, began long before a prescribed program existed and often without an applied goal. Broader exposure, and a more hospitable environment for black American jazz musicians abroad were motivation enough to draw those artists—pre-jazz and beyond—to Europe, as far back as the late 1800s. In the early 1920s, Sidney Bechet toured Europe, as far east as Russia, with Benny Carter and Duke Ellington covering similar territory into the 1930s. In 1931, at the height of Benito Mussolini's fascist regime in Italy, Louis Armstrong toured that country despite a clear anti-American sentiment. It speaks to the widespread admiration for jazz outside the U.S., that such cultural exceptions were made. Jazz was frequently offered as a genuine manifestation of the American way of life though the unrestricted expression of that life was often freer outside the US. The irony had never really been lost on Western Europe and became clearer in the East thanks to a persistent Soviet anti-American campaign that capitalized on the perception of U.S. hypocrisy and the illusion of a more progressive Soviet bloc. Political maneuvers notwithstanding, both sides of the Cold War understood that the popularity of jazz could be shaped to benefit for their own causes.

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