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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.

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Iraqis, especially young people, are becoming more interested in Western culture, Mr. Adeeb says. "Go to YouTube and you find rap songs with Iraqi slang words talking about the explosions and what is going on," he says, describing American soldiers blasting rap at checkpoints in Baghdad neighborhoods. "Young people use the music to talk to the American soldiers."

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"Break dancing and hip-hop are the jazz of the new millennium," pianist John Ferguson, founder of American Voices, a Houston-based music diplomacy nonprofit, writes in an e-mail from Beirut. In 2004, Ferguson incorporated a Hiplomacy tour after seeing how break-dancers and a DJ drew the under-30 crowd to a jazz festival he organized in Baku, Azerbaijan.

This year, he says, State Department budget cuts forced him to cancel two hip-hop tours to Serbia and Lithuania.

"When the US sends jazz musicians overseas, it's not the same as sending an opera singer," says Nicholas Cull, professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, who points out that jazz's interactive and improvisational nature makes fast friends.

Professor Cull hopes that President Obama will match rising interest shown by emergent powers China and Russia in sending their artists abroad.

Back in the 1960s, when pianist Randy Weston toured Africa with the State Department, the 6-foot-7 Brooklynite often went looking for the oldest man in the oldest village with the oldest instrument so that he could hear the most traditional music.

"Those tours gave me an opportunity to go back to the motherland," Mr. Weston says. His father followed Marcus Garvey, whom the US government jailed and deported in the 1920s, ostensibly for his radical "back to Africa" politics. Talk about living the contradiction that was America.

Jeffrey, now retired, fell in love with Italy. He established annual exchanges with Italian musicians as part of his jazz program at Duke.

"Whatever you do," he says "you should be trying to do something positive even if it's under the worst conditions."

With Mr. Obama as president, Jeffrey says with a chuckle, "When you go over there now, you're not living so much of a lie."

•Tour dates for Jam Session: July 17–Sept. 20, 2009: Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans; Oct. 19, 2009–Feb. 19, 2010: The American Jazz Museum, Kansas City, Mo.; March 8–April 30, 2010: Montana Museum of Art & Culture, University of Montana, Missoula.