Photo exhibit offers an intimate look at America's jazz ambassadors
Black jazz legends were sent abroad as part of a State Department diplomatic push even while segregation continued back home.
The black-and-white photographs in "Jam Session: America's Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World" don't come with a manual, but they should.Skip to next paragraph
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Three months after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus and roughly at the same time that black Americans were facing censure and arrest as a matter of law and whim, the US Department of State entrusted jazz musicians with representing America to the world.
Today, jazz is considered high art. In 1956, however, when Dizzy Gillespie became the first to tour under the Jazz Ambassadors program, jazz musicians were distinctively lowbrow; they had the same chance of winning presidential honors as a rap group does today. Jazz, after all, was Negro music, burped, fed and nurtured in all-Negro communities.
Browsing 20 years of happy images of black musicians performing on State Department-sponsored tours inspires a kind of cognitive dissonance. White Americans are reacting violently to Supreme Court orders to desegregate public schools, but here is a photo of Gillespie in 1956, sitting cross-legged on the ground, charming a cobra with either his cheeks or his trumpet in Karachi, Pakistan.
Lunch counter sit-ins, kicked off by four Greensboro, N.C., students, have spread like wildfire throughout the South, but here is another photo of Louis Armstrong in 1960, smiling, of course, hoisted like some gleeful maharajah on the shoulders of adoring fans in independent Congo.
What was it like for these black musicians to headline celebratory concerts for newly decolonized African nations on the one hand, but still not be able to stay in hotels south of the Mason-Dixon line back home? What was it like to travel under the auspices of a country known abroad for, as saxophonist Paul Jeffrey was told in Italy, white men being the boss of black men?
The questions provoked by this exhibit have the wonderful effect of humanizing the real-life men and women still breathing despite their poster-sized reincarnations as dead musicians on a wall.
"If you ask a black jazz musician to be a diplomat for a country that is still segregated," says Richard Pells, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and expert on post-World War II American cultural exports, "you put him in a very difficult position overseas."