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.
(Page 2 of 3)
The most famous grumble of discontent remains Armstrong's 1957 rebuke of President Dwight Eisenhower's foot-dragging on school desegregation in Little Rock, Ark. "The way they are treating my people in the South," Armstrong had said, while canceling plans for a State Department-sponsored Soviet tour, "the government can go to hell."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
More often than not, though, musicians' rebellions were not publicly captured.
Mr. Jeffrey, who often toured with Thelonious Monk, founded Duke University's jazz program more than 20 years ago. He still lives in North Carolina and remembers touring Europe with Gillespie shortly after runners John Carlos and Tommie Williams raised black-gloved fists in protest at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
During one of his sets, drummer Max Roach, who also headlined, wore a black glove to show solidarity. It was an undiplomatic overture that did not sit well with State Department etiquette.
But Jeffrey agreed with Roach's political play. "To be used as a pawn to signify that everything's OK when it's not, kinda leaves one...," Jeffrey says, before trailing off into a memory of segregated facilities and verbal insults he suffered while playing the Deep South in the early 1960s with B.B. King.
"America exporting its contradictions," is how author Penny von Eschen, in "Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War," describes the State Department's strategy of sending integrated jazz bands abroad to counter foreign perceptions of US racism at home.
The ultimate aim, of course, was to best the Soviet Union, which exported cultural ambassadors almost as often as it increased its nuclear stockpiles.
And although it is fair to assume that a bit of music never hurt, how much a musician's charm and soul helped to win the cold war, or the newly rebranded global war on terror, is almost impossible to objectively measure, Professor Pells says.
One rare attempt was a May 2006 evaluation of the jazz abroad program, renamed the Rhythm Road – the first comprehensive survey of any cultural program at the State Department.
Among worldwide embassy staff who responded, 97 percent agreed that overall, jazz performances and workshops allowed for dialogue to continue, even when foreign audiences disagreed with US policy.
"When things get really tough, you don't like American cultural influence because you blame them for what is happening," Iraqi journalist Ali Adeeb says, referring to 2006-07 when civilian deaths spiked in Iraq. But in a welcome sign of relative normalcy this past April, an American jazz band played an open-air concert in Baghdad.