We live in a world of super-powers competing for global influence. Beyond military victory and economic dominance, they also compete for our hearts and minds, often deploying artists as ambassadors.
Soon after the end of World War II, another war began between the Soviet Union and the United States, called the Cold War, and as it turned out, Jazz played a major role.
Following their temporary alliance to defeat Nazism, the US and USSR became fierce adversaries. Their nuclear arms race meant that military victory was unwinnable, so the next battlefield became a cultural one.
Each side promoted theatre, music, ballet, and visual arts, to show their cultural supremacy.
President Eisenhower felt that winning the struggle for international opinion was crucial to advancing democracy around the world.
And this is where Jazz comes in to the picture and it started with radio. In 1955 Voice of America Radio began broadcasting into Soviet-controlled territories, in part to counter anti-American propaganda being put forth by the USSR. For many people Willis Conover’s Jazz broadcasts were their only exposure to music from the West.
For Conover Jazz was more than music, it was a metaphor for American freedom
Conover said, “The fact that there are previously agreed upon rules by which everyone will abide. And within those rules everyone has complete freedom. And that is why I have always felt that Jazz is the truest expression of America, because it’s true of American life.”
And so largely because of Voice of America Jazz Hour, Jazz became extremely popular in Europe and Asia. As a 1955 New York Times headline put it “America’s Secret Weapon is a Blue Note in a Minor Key”.
In 1956 the State Department created the Jazz Ambassadors program, and Dizzy Gillespie was the first Jazz musician to represent the United States on a cultural mission. His 1956 tour went to 7 countries including Pakistan, Turkey and Greece. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell announced the tour.
More tours followed. People were crazy for American Jazz! Benny Goodman played an 8-week tour in the Soviet Union. Duke Ellington did a 3 month tour of Asia and the Middle East.
Dave Brubeck played 80 shows in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, providing inspiration for his album Jazz Impressions of Eurasia as well as one of his best-known compositions, “Blue Rondo ala Turk” from Time Out.
It’s important to remember that while this was going on, conditions for African-Americans in the US were still abysmal. Segregation and violence were part of life for black Americans and Soviet propagandists made sure the world knew about events like the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi, and the alleged hypocrisy of the American Dream. And so it was that Jazz, played by Black or racially-mixed bands was deployed to improve America’ image.
There were times when the artists had to push back. In 1957, Louis Armstrong who was not a political activist, cancelled a Russian tour to protest the “Little Rock Nine”, nine Black students who were prevented from attending a segregated high school. President Eisenhower later sent in federal troops.
Louis Armstrong was arguably the most famous and popular American Jazz musician to tour the world. In 1956, at the dawning of Ghana’s independence, Armstrong played in Accra for 100,000 people. Around 1960 Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola wrote a satirical Jazz musical starring Louis Armstrong called The Real Ambassadors. Inspired by Armstrong’s world tours on behalf of the United States, the play dealt with the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.