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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.

Cultural exchanges were a significant precursor to the Jazz Ambassador Program and began when Nelson Rockefeller, then a coordinator of Commercial and Cultural Affairs for the American Republics, facilitated the 1940 exchange of journalists from Latin America and the U.S. Later in the decade an American music radio program, Viva América was broadcast live by CBS in North America and La Cadena de las Américas in Latin and South America, from 1942 to 1949. The U.S. State Department strictly controlled the musical content of the programs making the enterprise a rare government/private sector venture. Shortly after World War II concluded, Senator J. William Fulbright introduced the Fulbright Program leading to a more formalized cultural exchange program. While both sides in the Cold War touted cultural exchanges as a means to alleviate the negative perceptions nurtured by political foes, the inside voices were prone to dark conspiratorial theories. Willis Conover began broadcasting his legendary jazz program on the Voice of America radio network, in 1955. By design, the programs were not broadcast to American audiences but throughout Europe and Asia where he had more than one-hundred million listeners, including many in the Soviet bloc. These programs primed the pump for live American jazz performances in those Iron Curtain countries.

The Jazz Ambassadors Program

In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appealed for funding from the House Committee on Appropriations with the purpose of countering Communist propaganda with the off-shore display of American exceptionalism. The approved funding was dispersed across multiple government agencies but more than two-million dollars was allocated to the State Department for the presentation and promotion of American theater, music, dance and some sporting events. The U.S. State Department's original Jazz Ambassadors Program officially began in 1956 and continued into the late 1970s. The program, beyond that point, continued through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the U.S. State Department, working in partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In 2017 I interviewed Elaine Clayton, Public Affairs Specialist at the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Ms. Clayton elaborated on the later transitions of the program: "Since 2011, the program has been known as American Music Abroad (AMA), implemented by the Association of American Voices, and has sent over 40 bands to over 100 countries. It is currently an active program, and there is a Notification of Funding Opportunity out...to implement the 2018-2019 season."

The Harlem Congressman and activist, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. initiated the concept of having jazz musicians replace classical orchestras and ballet companies on international tours. Powell believed that jazz music was a better representation of the American experience. A friend of Dizzy Gillespie, Powell helped set the stage for the trumpeter's large ensemble tour of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. In Greece, anti-American sentiment was running high as the U.S. was seen as supporting that country's oppressive dictator. Gillespie, however, was greeted as an icon and carried through the streets by admiring fans. Gillespie's omnipresent sense of humor, his odd, self-taught playing style and his genial personality, were traits that somewhat overshadowed his enormous contributions to modern jazz, at least to the general public. Gillespie and a handful of others such as Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Thelonious Monk, initiated the metamorphosis of swing into bebop with complex melodies, progressive harmonics and chordal inventions, and these players extended the imaginative potential of jazz far beyond dance music. And despite his outward affability, Gillespie had a strong social conscious and a demonstrative breaking point. The book Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton's Life in Stories and Photographs by Hinton, David G. Berger, and Holly Maxson, (Vanderbilt University Press, 2008) details the violent account of an altercation between Cab Calloway and Gillespie, when the trumpeter was in Calloway's band. In 1941 Calloway wrongly accused Gillespie of causing a minor disruption in the band and struck him when he wouldn't admit to doing so. The authors contend that Calloway was posturing in the presence of two female onlookers and continued to aggressively press Gillespie to the point of humiliation. Gillespie then stabbed Calloway in the leg with a pen knife. The wound was superficial and Calloway went on to perform that same night. Gillespie—as of the incident—was no longer in the band but his career was no worse off for the episode.

The trumpeter validated his commitment to racial equality as an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement. Gillespie was part of Norman Granz "Jazz at the Philharmonic." That groundbreaking project was guided by Granz insistence on completely integrated seating at venues. Gillespie was a vocal advocate for free medical care and housing for those in need; He contributed to the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), both prominent Civil Rights organizations; he half-jokingly ran for president in order to draw attention to racial issues. In David Carletta's Those White Guys Are Working For Me: Dizzy Gillespie, Jazz and the Cultural Politics of the Cold War During the Eisenhower Administration (International Social Science Review 82, No 3-4, 2007), the author describes Gillespie's reaction to the off-shore reception his band received as part of the Jazz Ambassdor Program: "People asked us a lot of questions about racism in the United States. But they could see it wasn't as intense because we had white boys and I was the leader of the band. That was strange to them because they'd heard about blacks being lynched and burned, and here I come with half whites and blacks and a girl playing in the band. And everybody seemed to be getting along fine. So I didn't try to hide anything I said, 'Yeah, there it is. We have our problems but we're still working on it. I'm the leader of this band, and those white guys are working for me. That's a helluva thing. A hundred years ago, our ancestors were slaves, and today we're scuffling with this problem, but I'm sure it's gonna be straightened out some day. I probably won't see it, completely, the eradication of racial prejudice in the United States, but it will be eliminated." Gillespie was less diplomatic in his autobiography (written with Al Fraser), To Be or Not to Bop: Memoirs of Dizzy Gillespie (Doubleday, 1979). In advance of a Jazz Ambassador tour Gillespie was summoned to Washington D.C. for a briefing. His reply was angrier in tone: "I've got three hundred years of briefing. I know what they've done to us, and I'm not going to make any excuses. If they ask me questions, I'm gonna answer them as honestly as I can." He added what was obvious to black artists of the era: "Americans don't seem to appreciate our own native music here, as well as people do in foreign lands—in Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa..."

National Public Radio's Farai Chideya, hosting the program News & Notes in 2006, interviewed a number of musicians with associations to Louis Armstrong. The occasion was the release of a retrospective box set of Armstrong's music and the topic was Armstrong's role in the Civil Rights Movement. The recollections of clarinetist Joe Morani, who played in Armstrong's band from 1967 until 1970, were included in the discussion. According to Morani, "Most blacks hated Louis Armstrong. The older ones didn't. The younger ones, no. He was old Uncle Tom, handkerchief head. I talked to Louis Armstrong about this. He was hurt." Shannon Stockwell, writing in the American Conservatory Theater blog in 2015 agreed with Morani's assessment and added that the new breed of black musicians in the 1940s saw Armstrong as submissive to whites. Stockwell went on to quote Miles Davis as saying: "I always hated the way they [Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie] used to laugh and grin to the audiences. I know why they did it—to make money and because they were entertainers as well as trumpet players. They had families to feed. Plus they both liked acting the clown; it's just the way Dizzy and Satch were. I don't have nothing against them doing it if they want to. But I didn't like it and didn't have to like it." The audience-facing personas of Armstrong and Gillespie were an asset not only in the audience-facing way Davis describes, but also for the image-conscious State Department.

While Armstrong was generally accepted by white audiences in the U.S., he was not the establishment instrument some thought him to be. The headline, Louis Armstrong, Barring Soviet Tour, Denounces Eisenhower and Gov. Faubus" in The New York Times (September 19, 1957) pointed to a Civil Rights advocate who judiciously chose which battles were worth fighting in the public arena. Armstrong's voice was a more potent weapon for the Civil Rights movement just by the shock value of his lashing out. According to the NYT and Armstrong biographer James Lincoln Collier, Armstrong called Eisenhower "two-faced" and "gutless" due to his indecisiveness during the struggle over the 1957 school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. Armstrong canceled a scheduled Jazz Ambassador tour of the Soviet Union saying: "The way they're treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell...It's getting almost so bad a colored man hasn't got any country." On September 24, Eisenhower ordered the Army's 101st Airborne Division—without its black soldiers—to uphold the desegregation of Central High School and he federalized the Arkansas National Guard, preventing Arkansas Governor Faubus from using those troops to block the nine black students from entering the school. Eisenhower's change of heart was likely due to a number of factors but it was widely believed that Armstrong's reaction was a catalyst of significance. Armstrong had toured in Asia, Africa and Latin America in 1957, and then came home to a show in Tennessee where whites bombed the theater.

In Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2009) the scholar, Lisa E. Davenport points out that the paradox of forward-facing messages and segregationist reality was not lost on white jazz performers participating in the Jazz Ambassador Program in the mid-1950s. Benny Goodman struggled to tour with an integrated group inside the U.S. but had worked with Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins and Billie Holiday as early as the 1930s. In 1956 Thailand he performed as a Jazz Ambassador on stages, in people's homes and jammed with the country's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a self-taught saxophonist. Goodman's 1962 tour of the Soviet Union following the Cuban Missile Crisis was coordinated with the exchange of the Bolshoi Ballet's tour of the U.S. and was seen as a significant—if brief—thaw in the Cold War.

Before he became a participant in the Jazz Ambassador Program, Dave Brubeck was a household name in American culture; he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1954 and he was an early protagonist in the West Coast/Cool movement. Brubeck was also among the few white jazz musicians of that era who featured an integrated band and actively pushed against racial barriers. As a member of the military, Brubeck's Wolf Pack group was the first integrated band in the otherwise segregated U.S. Army, serving on the front lines in World War II Europe. Brubeck's quartet formed in 1951, with Paul Desmond on alto saxophone and the group gained a substantial following playing college campuses and recording a number of on-site albums. Despite resistance from some schools that requested African American bassist Eugene Wright not perform, Brubeck insisted on featuring his integrated band, standards that he consistently applied to concerts, television appearances and to his Jazz Ambassador tours. His extensive range of country performances covered Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Southern Asia. Brubeck was the first of the Jazz Ambassadors to tour behind the Iron Curtain with a series of successful concerts in Poland in 1958.

Brubeck and his wife Iola wrote and produced the musical The Real Ambassadors over a period of time from the late 1950s into the early 1960s. Based on their experiences and those of their Jazz Ambassador colleagues, the musical was intended to be a satire that reflected the dichotomy of U.S. race relations and the outward expressions presented by the program. The original staging included Armstrong and his group, vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan, Carmen McRae and Brubeck's group. The Brubeck's wrote all the lyrics, speaking parts (principally, narration), and music, incorporating ten of about twenty written selections into the live performance at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival. Though there were television cameras on-site, Brubeck did not have the seven-hundred and fifty dollars needed to have the performance recorded. It was to be the only full performance of the The Real Ambassadors.

The critical reaction to the musical—as was typically the case with Brubeck—was mixed. Much like the audiences that wanted nothing more than to hear "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo à la Turk," some critics saw Brubeck straying out of his lane with such topical material. For his own part, Brubeck seemed to have wanted to have it both ways with The Real Ambassadors. Patrick Jarenwattananon, writing in NPR's A Blog Supreme relates that Brubeck, in 2009, commented on how seriously Armstrong took the opportunity to speak out for civil rights: "Now, we wanted the audience to chuckle about the ridiculous segregation, but Louis was cryin...' and every time we wanted Louis to loosen up, he'd sing 'I'm really free. Thank God Almighty, I'm really free.'" And in her book Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies (Columbia University Press, 2004) Penny M. Von Eschen qualifies the emotional impact for Armstrong, saying, "After years of demeaning roles in his public performances, the collaboration in The Real Ambassadors offered Armstrong material that was closer to his own sensibility and outlook." The musical spawned an album of the same name in 1962 (Columbia Masterworks) with added material.

The Paradox of Cultural Diplomacy

In Music in America's Cold War Diplomacy (University of California Press, 2015) author Danielle Fosler-Lussier talks about the contradictions of cultural diplomacy, saying, "If we look at the State Department's music program from the top down, we see the imperial desire to impress American values on others...music programs differ little from other forms of propaganda that tried to shape opinions by offering information." But Fosler-Lussier also offered the counter-argument that the music program represents a 'softer' form of influence and one that relies heavily on the engagement between the musicians and the audience. Fosler-Lussier's research indicates that jazz musicians had little diplomatic preparation before touring for the program. In the case of some better known musicians, the State Department provided briefing sessions though these were not in-depth meetings. The musicians who were invited to such sessions did not universally respond. Some who attended the briefings found them to be of little or no use, at least from their prospective. Most of the recruited performers were content to let the music speak for itself. Fosler-Lussier cites the preparation of the University of Michigan Jazz Band as a case that demonstrates the State Department's wish to impress upon performers, viewpoints that had no relationship to the music. The UMJB members—pre-tour—received government brochures titled "Democracy vs. Dictators" and "Why We Treat Communists Differently." Most University of Michigan Jazz Band members claimed to have ignored the printed material.

For many in the Jazz Ambassador targeted audiences, the broadly recognizable duplicity beneath efforts to sell American liberty was the social and institutional racism that pervaded U.S. culture. The height of the Cold War coincided with racially driven incidents from the Little Rock Nine (1957) to the "long, hot summer" of 1967 when race riots took place in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Buffalo, NY, Tampa, Birmingham, AL, Chicago, New York City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, CT., Rochester, N.Y., Plainfield, NJ., Newark, NJ and Detroit. The darker side of U.S. culture was exposed globally, in words and pictures. Within jazz music itself, another divide had surfaced as bebop began to supplant swing. The corollary of the rise of bebop in the late 1940s and into the 1950s was that jazz as a "popular" music was diminished in the U.S. though not necessarily in all locations outside the states. The State Department could be excused for finding the new style difficult to fathom; many music fans of that era didn't warm up to the un-danceable, un-hummable style. But in Europe, the bebop train had already left the station. In the late 1940s European musicians were moving forward, sitting in with Parker, Gillespie, Davis, and other Americans playing in the U.K., France and Sweden.

In Jazz Diplomacy Davenport writes: "As the United States propelled the black aesthetic onto the world stage and embraced jazz as a unique American contribution to world culture, a deep ideological divide persisted in CU [Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs] and in the jazz world. Although many different musicians—such as Miles Davis, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane—represented many different styles of jazz, mainstream 'sanitized' jazz performed by the older generation of black and white jazz musicians prevailed in cultural policy. Jazz tours thus heightened the friction among black and white artists in the jazz world at home and abroad. In this context, such critics as [Don] DeMichael lamented the fact that State Department jazz programs remained 'encrusted in conservativism.' From 1954 to 1968, despite the popularity of modern jazz, the State Department's lack of interest in modern and free jazz groups 'smack[ed] of a fear of boat rocking.' Moreover the State Department often underwent criticism for using race as an obvious ploy; sometimes jazz policy resulted in the perpetuation of stereotypes. In the 1950s and 1960s jazz and jazz diplomacy came to represent the soul of a divided people."

The End of an Era

Utilizing jazz as a diplomatic tool was more than a moral imperative; it was a means of promoting an all-inclusive national image, often without having to provide a detailed narrative as proof. Both sides in the Cold War attempted to exploit the other as being on the wrong side of history and, for the U.S. and the Soviet Union, there was sufficient evidence to build a case. Much of the early focus of the Jazz Ambassador program had been on Africa where a wealth of minerals and raw materials were being under-utilized. Fifty-three countries on that continent were under colonial control during the Cold War and the colonizers were all Western European allies of an ambivalent U.S. But under Nikita Khrushchev—in the early 1950s—the Soviet Union began to establish diplomatic ties with many West African countries while providing military assistance to guerilla uprisings in other African colonies. The State Department sent Armstrong and his All-Stars on a number of African tours to the Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya. The agency partnered with well-known U.S.-based brands such as Pepsi, and Armstrong's image was ubiquitous in local advertising, from food products to laxatives; he was treated like royalty wherever he traveled on the African continent. However, the politics that hung over tours were inescapable; Armstrong played in Israel in 1959 and Egypt in 1961 and both countries accused him of spying for the other.

By the end of 1962, all of the colonized countries of Africa had won their independence though there remained a need to influence the new leaders who were rising up, sometimes in countries that had not even existed under colonialism. But the battle for hearts and minds was no longer one of immediacy and after the mid-1970s, the Jazz Ambassador program in Africa was pared back, shifting funding to other civic and business oriented agendas. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came into power in the Soviet Union, and introduced a new era of more political openness and a freer acceptance of western ideas. It was a cautious signal that the Cold War may be waning. The first concrete proof came with the 1989 election of a democratic government in Poland. Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania followed immediately after Poland, and later that year, and into 1990, the Berlin Wall fell. By the end of 1991, Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Russia had all declared independence and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Though the Cold War was over, the need for diplomacy only became more complicated, if not quite as urgent. In place of the Soviet bloc there were now dozens of new states, some with unstable or rogue governments. Others, such as Yugoslavia, traded Soviet oppression for another of its own making. The work of the Jazz Ambassadors Program had changed, but not concluded. The U.S. Government's Federal Register indicates that the 1957 Jazz Ambassador budget for Dizzy Gillespie's tour alone, was $141,000; adjusted for inflation, the equivalent of $902,000 in 2018. By 2004, the entire annual budget for eight touring jazz groups was $840,000.

The Contemporary Jazz Ambassadors Program: American Music Abroad (AMA)

Through their own commissioned evaluation of the Jazz Ambassadors Program, the State Department lays out specific diplomatic goals for the platform. It can be disconcerting to reconcile the understandably bureaucratic aims of a government agency with the relatively unrestrained world of jazz. Objectives such as "improving attitudes and beliefs about the U.S. government" and "serving as an alternative mechanism for policy dialogue" hardly have the flair of the music being weaponized for the mission. Yet there has long been the more philanthropic—and debatable—goal, "Improving attitudes and beliefs about the American people (as demonstrated by the program—creativity, freedom of expression, innovation, liberality of thought, independence, diversity, and individual, civil, and human rights)." The further the statement reads on, the more duplicitous it becomes. Those embellishments aside, there is a key undertaking of the Jazz Ambassadors Program that appeals to the participating musicians and their global fans: "Providing music/jazz/cultural education; supporting music and jazz education where it is lacking; Working with students; Training educators; and offering a variety of activities including workshops, master classes, teaching sessions, lectures, and school presentations."

The State Department's Elaine Clayton further elaborates on how the Jazz Ambassador program's goals have changed over the years: "The American Music Abroad program supports U.S. foreign policy goals, especially youth and women's empowerment...The program creates lasting connections between American and foreign musicians, enhancing U.S. global competitiveness by helping participants better understand other cultures and international creative markets. American Music Abroad also increases foreign participants' and young foreign audiences' appreciation of the excellence and diversity of American music, society, and culture." Ms. Clayton also points out that there are objectives that are directly connected to fostering the exchange of musical cultures. "The objectives in each country will differ depending on the U.S. relationship with that country and the objectives of the Embassy in each country. Recently, for example, The Northern Lights vocalist Natalia Zukerman, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Chaska Potter, and percussionist Mona Tavakoli visited Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania (February-March, 2017). Throughout their tour, they held workshops with women and girl musicians which included discussions of how to succeed in the music industry. Commenting on their experience, Tavakoli said in a recent Facebook post "When I asked the kids at the Jacaranda School for Orphans in Blantyre, Malawi if they wanted to try the cajon, several boys came right up, sat down and started playing. We kept looking at the girls and asking them to come and try... Then finally one brave little warrior took off her backpack and walked over to the cajon. She sat down and went for it...After this one girl stepped up and played, three girls quickly ran over to play the cajon... Her bravery made it ok for the other girls to feel good about trying too."

Among the recent participants in the Jazz Ambassador Program is Zé Maurício. Maurício—a percussionist—is a native of Rio de Janeiro now living in New York City. A founding member of the Choro Ensemble, with whom he has performed twice at Carnegie Hall, he has released two albums. Choro is considered the first characteristically Brazilian genre of urban popular music. Maurício has recorded with Yo Yo Ma, Paquito D'Rivera, Wynton Marsalis, Nana Vasconcelos, Joanna Brakeen, Eddie Gomez, Slide Hampton, among other well-known artists. I asked Maurício how he came to the program, and in his case, it was an indirect connection. Matuto—a touring collective—is anchored by guitarist Clay Ross and accordionist Rob Curto and the group around them can function as a quartet, quintet, or sextet. Maurício relates his involvement: "Clay Ross, Matuto's band leader was already a member of the program and for few years, had traveled as a solo artist or with a smaller version of Matuto, so I experienced it thru his eyes knowing that in some point in the future I'd live it myself." Maurício did experience the program in Malta, Oman, Kuwait, China, Cambodia, Thailand, Georgia and Azerbaijan on tours that lasted between seven and thirty days.

Maurício's experience of working with the State department was a positive one. "Tremendous." He says. "From impact on audiences, to organization, to band relations, to accommodation and care, tremendous!." His only adverse feedback was to say that "In China there were some censorship and we had to choose carefully our words if asked to speak in public." But his overall take-away was this affirmative assessment: "To be able to touch people with our music that otherwise, without this program, would never see or hear what we do."

Vocalist, songwriter and teacher Gabrielle Stravelli has received national acclaim both in and out of jazz circles. With three albums to her credit, Stravelli mixes original compositions with a diverse assortment that runs from Ellington to Bob Marley. No stranger to the road, her trio has toured extensively east of the Mississippi and from Norway down-continent to Italy. In 2015 she was featured in an international tour sponsored by the State Department's AMA program. Her ensemble was one of ten selected from hundreds of potential participants and the tour took them to Moldova, Azerbaijan, Slovenia and Malta, where her quartet taught workshops and masterclasses by day and performed at night. In 2017 the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan—formerly part of the Soviet Union—invited Stravelli to perform at a celebration marking twenty-five years of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Azerbaijan. Later that year she led a quintet on a ten-day tour of Pakistan that included concerts and partnerships with local artists, performers and students.

Stravelli is a Staten Island, New York native who grew up in New Jersey. Though she self-identifies as a jazz singer, Stravelli has worked in theater, performed new music and, what she describes as "classical-leaning" material. She says of her experience with the State Department program: "Before my AMA tour I hadn't really been aware of the role that embassies play and I found it fascinating to discover and be a small part of the work they do and to get a glimpse of how diplomacy works. I'm also extremely appreciative of the fact that this program exists; that the State Department is aware of the power that music has to connect people across boundaries of culture and language. You have to select a genre when you're auditioning and so I knew that I would be expected to play that type of material. My genre was jazz and the Great American Songbook, which is great because that encompasses a lot of material. The embassies that I worked with were open to me performing both the older more "standard" material as well as some of the newer writers that I consider part of the Great American Songbook-people like John Fogerty and Willie Nelson. No one ever micromanaged my song choices."

I asked Stravelli to relate some positive experiences in being part of the Jazz Ambassador program and it was clear that the program has an impact on the performers as well as the audience. "It does expose you to an audience you'd likely not otherwise be connected with which is great. It's also obviously an amazing way to see the world and to visit places that people generally don't go as tourists. And I think that travel is an incredibly enriching experience for a person, if you're open to it. It's a pretty heavy thing to be a stranger somewhere and to be welcomed by people and treated very warmly, as I always was. I think it has the power to make people more empathic and it drove home for me the importance of welcoming and accepting people here at home. As a New Yorker, I already believed that, but to experience it firsthand, in the position of being the foreigner was very heavy. Also-I was really amazed by the number of times that I told people abroad that I was from New York and they said 'New York-the city of my dreams.' I hadn't fully realized that New York City is still considered by so many to be a land of opportunity and acceptance. It made me even more proud to be a New Yorker than I already was."

Stravelli went on to talk about the key thoughts that she brought home from her touring experiences: "I've really become evangelical about these tours because the biggest take away for me has been that everywhere I go people are people. And my assumptions about what a place would be like are almost always proven wrong. I know I sound like a Pollyanna, but really all over the world people have the same basic wants and needs-a home, good food, good music, an education, for their families to prosper, etc. And so we don't need to be afraid of each other because truly, the things we have in common really do far outweigh the things that make us different. The key is just to get people in front of each other, interacting, and that's what these tours do. The other big take away was that the experience reminded me of the power of music and the importance of the arts and arts education in providing common ground for people to connect over and as an essential part of education everywhere. Shortly after I returned from my AMA tour a friend posted this quote from Leonard Bernstein that summed up the experience for me in so many ways: 'The point is, art never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so that they are changed...because people are changed by art—enriched, ennobled, encouraged—they then act in a way that may affect the course of events...by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.'"

Bassist Pat O'Leary participated in the Jazz Ambassador Program in 2001 and 2002 touring West Africa, Southeast Asia and South America. The Buffalo, NY native—now a New York City resident—frequently appears at The Blue Note, The Village Vanguard, Bradley's, Fat Tuesdays, The Iridium, and has performed at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall. He grew up on the music of BB King, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Zappa but—at the age of twenty—began playing with saxophonist Hugh Brodie. Brodie exposed O'Leary to Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, Johnny Griffin and Albert Ayler. O'Leary has worked with Mel Lewis, Bucky Pizzarelli, Jerry Bergozi, Diana Krall, James Moody, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano and many other well-known artists. In 2017 I interviewed O'Leary about his time as a Jazz Ambassador.

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