Like many a musician, bassist Ari Roland has long dreamt of changing the world with music. Now, as a State Department-funded "jazz ambassador," that dream has come true.
A native New Yorker, Mr. Roland and his group, the Ari Roland Quartet, are charged with taking jazz, that quintessentially American musical form, to foreign audiences. The band recently toured countries along the ancient Silk Road in Central Asia – Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. And on an August evening at New York's JFK airport, Roland was about to depart on an "All-Stars" tour through Mali, India, and China. In his bag, he carried the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, several copies of the Economist, a book on the history of Chinese poetry, and an iPod.
"I'm less interested in telling people, 'This is what's great about America; jazz represents democracy,' " says Roland. Rather, "I'm interested in hitting on some of the very basic human themes that exist in jazz."
Yet, as a State Department-funded musician, his purpose is to at least show audiences how diverse, gloriously cacophonous, and ultimately cool the United States really is.
Roland's effort is part of "The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad" program administered by Jazz at the Lincoln Center, a not-for-profit arts organization in New York City. The program has a few musical groups working abroad at any given time. A panel of judges, including trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize winner Wynton Marsalis, chooses the groups based on their talent, ruggedness (Roland's quartet averaged 1.5 flights daily), and "ease" and "eloquence" in conversations, says Susan John, director of touring at Jazz at Lincoln Center. This year, the program averages some 260 days of touring.
The Rhythm Road targets underserved groups, in terms of access to American culture, primarily Muslim audiences around the world, says Alina Romanowski, deputy assistant secretary for professional and cultural affairs in the State Department's Bureau of Cultural Affairs.
"We want to make sure that people understand what the United States is all about and what we represent," she says. "Cultural diplomacy is one way of doing it."
But some say that American culture delivered to foreign audiences is no substitute for policies acceptable to these same audiences. (State says these efforts were never meant as a substitute.) And yet, even critics of the Bush administration support sending jazz and other American art forms – as well as artists – abroad. Indeed, government-funded cultural exchanges have a long and storied history.
President Dwight Eisenhower began sending jazz musicians abroad during the cold war as an answer to the Soviet cultural institutions like the Bolshoi Ballet. The government also broadcast American music on Radio Free Europe.
But after the Soviet Union collapsed, funding for cultural diplomacy dwindled until, by 2000, it had reached a nadir. In retrospect, that was a mistake, says Ms. Romanowski, and especially since Sept. 11, "we've recognized that again, we want to engage as broad an audience as possible.... There's a lot of support for it on the Hill."
Since 2000, funding for public diplomacy programs has more than doubled to $465.6 million for 2007. (The Rhythm Road gets $1 million annually.)
The renewed effort has gotten off to a rocky start, however. Two heads have resigned – Charlotte Beers and Patricia Harrison – and Karen Hughes, the current undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, has drawn criticism for cultural insensitivity during a 2005 listening tour of the Middle East. The federal government's own website, expectmore.gov, rates these diplomacy efforts simply as "adequate."
But none of this bothers members of the Ari Roland Quartet, who consider themselves the greatest beneficiaries. "I didn't take jazz to Russia; jazz took me to Russia," says Chris Byars, the quartet's saxophonist. "I'm the one benefiting in this equation."
For Roland, the goal has always been simple: to share the universal elements of a musical style rooted in the African-American experience. In jazz, musicians improvise around a melody and then play around the improvisation without disrupting the group harmony.
"The idea of being able to have your own personality and being able to be who you are [while being] considerate of your community – people can relate to that when they see jazz," says Roland. The music marries Western emphasis on the individual with Eastern notions of community, he says.
"Our culture is a very diverse culture, and it's a culture that's based on all sorts of influences," says Romanowski. Inclusivity and tolerance are central to the message the US is trying to convey. To this end, the State Department encourages all Rhythm Road participants to speak their minds, even if their views don't jibe with official US foreign policy.
Roland confirms this approach. "Occasionally we'd get a question, 'What do you think about the war in Iraq?' " says Roland. "And we were pretty honest. The State Department told us to be honest."
Still, some see a contradiction: The US touts tolerance and diversity along the Silk Road, says Barnett Rubin, director of studies at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. But its primary interests in the region, he says, are access to military bases for the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns to counter Russian influence and eventually tapping abundant oil and natural gas resources. "If anyone tells you that the US has an interest in democracy in Central Asia, don't believe them," Dr. Rubin says.
"Cultural exchange is no substitute for an effective foreign policy," he adds. "Patting a kid on the head is no substitute for having a policy in the Middle East that Arabs can support."
Dour as he sounds, Rubin has only good things to say about sending jazz abroad. Future presidential candidates should nominate "a secretary of swing," he half jokes. "Swinging is a very important [political] philosophy. You make something beautiful by cooperating, without anyone telling you what to do."
Penny Von Eschen, a professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and author of "Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War," says the jazz ambassadorship has been fraught with contradictions since its inception 50 years ago.
President Eisenhower sent African-American jazz musicians to emerging nations in Africa and Asia to both counter the "red menace" and, somewhat hypocritically in retrospect, to stymie international criticism of Jim Crow laws – what Professor Von Eschen calls the "Achilles' heel" of the US.
The efforts worked, says Von Eschen, "but not necessarily in the sense the State Department thinks they worked." Audiences, she says, didn't always identify with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington, among others, as Americans. "What the jazz musicians shared with the audiences all over India, Africa, and Asia was an aspiration for freedom. That is subtly different than saying, 'This is the free expression of music in a free country.' "
Present-day spectators seem perfectly capable of differentiating between an individual, their culture, and their country's foreign policy, says Bektour Iskender, an online news site editor who met the Ari Roland Quartet in his native country, Kyrgyzstan.
"Each person is unique despite [his or her] homeland, or ethnicity, or whatever," he writes in an e-mail. "The fact that they [the quartet] are Americans was the last thing I was thinking of when talking to them."