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Travelling the “Rhythm Road”: Jazz Ambassadorship in the Twenty-First Century

Victor L. Schermer By

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When asked to define jazz, Count Basie, said, "Tap your feet!" Rhythm brings people together, and is part of what makes jazz America's musical bridge to the world. "Jazz ambassadorship," a concept which came on the scene over half a century ago, continues into the New Milennium. One current basis for its longevity is that every year since 2005, under the combined auspices of the U.S. State Department and Jazz at Lincoln Center, ten selected musical groups circumnavigate the globe to provide music and informal diplomacy, bringing our good will and good vibes to the local people. The program is called "The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad." This is its inside story.

The Rhythm Road: Devin Phillips in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec 2007

Chapter Index
  1. Roots of The Rhythm Road
  2. Travelling with the Rhythm Road Musicians
  3. Dangers Along the Road
  4. Encounters between American and Local Music and Musicians
  5. Running the Show
  6. Bringing it All Home

Roots of The Rhythm Road

The roots of this innovative program go back to the very origins of jazz. From its inception, jazz has depended on links between America and the people of other nations. Its sources are international, having originated in New Orleans, a multi-ethnic harbor city of boat crews, workers, immigrants, travelers, and entertainers. Then, in the Jazz Age and the Modern Jazz era, the music traversed the Atlantic and became popular in Europe, with our musicians frequently performing and mentoring there. Moreover, African American musicians were made to feel more at home on the Continent than in their then segregated country, and often took up residency. Jazz became a major avenue for Europeans to learn about American culture, providing a more intimate glimpse of our people than the media and complementing the presence of American tourists, expatriates, and soldiers. Soon, the reach of jazz extended to Japan and other parts of Asia, and later to Africa, the Middle East, and South America. Paradoxically, today jazz is more popular in many of these countries than in the U.S.

Around the world, jazz came to represent the American ideals of individuality, romance, and freedom, whether in nations that were enemies or allies. Bandleader and composer Chris Walden, who came up in Germany, recalled when his uncle told him "how he and his friends got together during the Nazi period and traded jazz records, all secretly, of course. They rented a small boat, and took a gramophone out on the lake, and listened to jazz records! It was the only safe place for them to do it!" Jazz has a message that tyrants don't like, but since then, it's been safer for people everywhere to listen to jazz, and there's something about it that brings people together and touches many hearts and passions.

During the Cold War, beginning in 1955, the Congressional Representative from Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. initiated a government-sponsored set of globe-trotting jazz in the form of the well-known Jazz Ambassadors Program of the U.S. Department of State. The project, which was later assisted by promoter George Wein, sponsored international tours that included such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dave Brubeck. As a result, jazz became a government-sanctioned means of international diplomacy, Armstrong became known as "Ambassador Satch," (Photo right: Louis Armstrong in United Arab Republic) and ever since then, jazz has reached many more places on the globe with its music, musicians, and message.

Recently, in 2005, the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs reconfigured the musical ambassador idea in cooperation with Jazz at Lincoln Center (J.A.L.C.), where Wynton Marsalis serves as Artistic Director. The new venture, which Marsalis has helped to shape on a macro level, is called The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad. To date, the program has brought 118 musicians from 31 ensembles featuring jazz, urban and American roots music to 97 countries, promoting cultural exchange through music, education, and personal interactions. The program differs from the original Jazz Ambassadors in that, rather than bringing star power and popularity to the task, it gives local people, politicians, and diplomats an opportunity to experience music-in-the-making by working musicians whose credentials may or may not include fame, but who share their own musical strivings "in the flesh," including original compositions, jamming with local musicians, and giving an in-depth intimate sampling of what the music is about today. The music initially included jazz and urban music (hip hop, r&b). In 2008, Marsalis was at the table when the genres were expanded to include American roots music (blues, bluegrass, gospel, Cayjun, country, and zydeco.) The details are spelled out in their website.

Travelling with The Rhythm Road Musicans

The bare-boned facts about The Rhythm Road, however, leave out the color and the "feeling of what happens." All About Jazz wanted to know the inside story, what actually occurs on these tours, what the real life experience is like, and what it really accomplishes. To get a bead on this, AAJ contacted the program's touring director, Susan John, who is involved in all aspects of planning and implementing The Rhythm Road itineraries. She often travels with the musicians and offered a snapshot of one tour, which took the group in and out of the population centers, giving the flavor of the experience: "In Zimbabwe we were in a school setting. A forty-five minute drive through a somewhat barren area with a few concrete buildings, and then you couldn't even tell it was a classroom building. In the course of ten minutes, it went from an empty building to sixty or seventy kids packed in waiting for us to do something, anything! Contrast that with our evening performance a day or two before in a crowded festival setting with many patrons convening for a week-long festival of artists from all over the world, and they looked forward to this jazz quartet. So it ranges from small to large, informal to formal. And one of the purposes of the program is cultural exchange, and you see just as much dialogue after the concert, when a musician is packing up the drums, and he's flanked by six people, drummers and others, and you're just seeing the connections that can happen on all levels." The combination of music and informal conversation is the basis of the diplomatic "magic" of The Rhythm Road.

In the cities, there are major concert performances, as well as gatherings at the embassies of the host countries. Trumpeter Charlie Porter, whose quartet (photo right) consisting of himself and Adam Birnbaum on piano, Scott Ritchie on bass, and John Weekon on drums is going to Bengladesh, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and India this year, and who has toured with The Rhythm Road in the past, notes that the venue varies: "Sometimes it might be a grand music hall, one of the best concert halls. Like in Mumbai, India, we played at a huge theater seating several thousand people. However, in Unugu, we played at an outdoor place that seated perhaps a hundred people, basically a tent. And we've also played at embassies, for diplomats and political figures. Other times we're playing at a school for elementary children, or a school for young adults. One time we did a master class for a military band of Sierra Leone musicians. You never really know what's going to be set up for you. It could be a concert hall or a tent or a classroom for twenty people."

In addition to the music, the face-to-face interactions between musicians and audiences leave lasting impressions that can have a direct impact on relations between different countries or segments of society. Drummer Tim Horner, whose group, the Mark Sherman/Tim Horner Quartet (pictured below left), with Jim Ridl on piano, and Tom DiCarlo on bass, is touring the Pacific Rim this year, recalls his previous journeys with vocalist Roseanna Vitro. On a stop in Cypress, the group made a direct impact on the protracted conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The island itself is divided into Greek and Turkish territories. "We played on both sides. We did a private concert at one of the Greek Ambassador's homes. An elderly guy with a beard came over and talked to us. Afterwards, the Ambassador said to us, 'That man was one of the biggest Turkish Cypriot diplomats. He loves jazz. This was the first time he came to the Greek side in over 50 years!' He talked to the Greek Cypriot diplomats for the first time, and said, 'I'll be back.' So we helped make a real diplomatic breakthrough!"

Says Porter, "The program involves embassy representatives from the host country. They not only want us to play at the embassies, but also in the local communities to build a cultural bridge. Jazz is a great vehicle for diplomacy because it embodies the true spirit of democracy, and it also gives the locals a holistic view of the culture of America, since jazz is so much a part of our country." Susan John feels that the music itself has a transformative impact: "You see the overall power of music. What comes to mind is that when I was in Mexico with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (this trip was independent of The Rhythm Road program), and the flood of emails and phone calls that came in saying 'That was the greatest concert of my life.' The director of the modern art museum, who had sworn that he couldn't stand jazz, said 'I completely changed my mind.' The recurrent theme is transformation. What that says for how Rhythm Road influences perceptions of America, I can't completely say, but I do know that the good will engendered is immeasurable, and whether that translates to 'I didn't like America before, but now I do' I can't say, but I do think the person-to-person and musical good vibes that we leave them with has a positive effect."


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