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Madeleine Albright: Secretary of State, jazz supporter, drummer

Madeleine Albright at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Drum Competition, 2012.
Steve Mundinger
Monk Institute
Madeleine Albright at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Drum Competition, 2012.

The 64th Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, died from cancer on March 23. Appointed in 1997, Albright was the first woman to hold the post and the highest ranking woman in government at that time.

Albright also promoted cultural diplomacy through jazz, and occasionally played the drums.

An immigrant from Czechoslovakia, Albright received her U. S. citizenship in 1957. She became a political scientist and diplomat, and specialized in foreign policy.

By the time of her death at age 84, Albright had been celebrated as a barrier-breaking woman during her decades of public service.

Much like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's famous "dissent collar," Albright was known for wearing distinctive costume jewelry brooches to express her moods and opinions.

Less-known facts about Albright include her sense of fun and her love of music.

Jazz intrigued her, starting in the 1980s when she met with the then-underground Jazz Section of the Czech Musician's Union. She was impressed with the group playing jazz as a way to oppose a repressive regime and turning into a political force.

The U.S. State Department has used American jazz as a cultural diplomacy tool, starting in 1956 with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie taking his band on a world tour for theJazz Ambassadors program.

Albright also incorporated jazz into her diplomacy, beginning a relationship with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz (now the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz) in 1997.

As Secretary of State, Albright hosted receptions for the diplomatic corps and jazz community at the State Department during the Institute's jazz competition finals. After leaving office, she hosted the Institute's annual gala and helped facilitate its programs abroad.

Following the news of her death, photos of Albright wielding a pair of mallets at a drum set resurfaced on social media. The contrast to her political persona prompted some to exclaim, "What?! How did I not know this?"

Albright's drum set cameos actually go back more than a decade.

In 2011, trumpeter Chris Botti performed a Valentine's Day concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C. Often, at high-profile concerts, Botti invites a high-profile person to play the drums on his last song. He asked Albright, who immediately agreed.

While she'd had dreams of becoming an opera singer as a child, Albright had never actually played drums before.

Then, in 2012 at the end of the Monk Institute's drum competition, Albright was presented with the Institute’s Maria Fisher Founder’s Award for her dedicated support. Of course, they had her play some drums to close the event.

Several years later in 2016, Albright traded beats with Max Weinberg, longtime drummer for Bruce Springsteen's E Street band and former band leader on Conan O'Brian's Late Night and Tonight Show.

Her dabbling with the drums is perhaps best summed up in her Twitter bio: "64th SecState, refugee, prof, bizwoman, pin collector & occasional drummer."

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.