USA: jazz music, racism, and Cold War

Dizzy GillespieUSA: jazz music, racism, and Cold War

Date: 8/1/05 at 4:23PM

Mood: Listening Playing: Strange fruit, by Billie Holiday

By Phil Shannon:

Cold War jazz tours

Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War
By Penny M. Von Eschen
Harvard University Press, 2004
329 pages, $60 (hb)

Louis Armstrong was one of dozens of US jazz musicians sponsored by the US State Department who blew their horn for US foreign policy on overseas tours during the Cold War.

Or so State Department officials hoped. What Armstrong and his jazz peers actually delivered, however, subverted the State Department script more often than not.

Penny Von Eschen’s book charts the jazz ambassadors’ itinerary, which for two decades from 1956 followed the overseas trail of Washington-sponsored coups, assassinations, political destabilisation and military invasion.

The jazz tours, says Von Eschen, were intended to reinforce the “strategic and economic interests” of US foreign policy.

Jazz was chosen because of the prominence of its black artists, who, it was hoped, would counter foreign criticism of US racism.

This racism was the Achilles heel of official US claims that it was a democratic wonderland and was merely exporting its freedom and democracy to the rest of the world.

The jazz ambassadors were intended as “goodwill symbols of American democracy”, but the contradiction of promoting black artists as symbols of a racial equality yet to be achieved undermined the whole premise of the tours.

The list of State Department-sponsored artists is impressive. Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Hines, Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis and Oscar Petersen were among the major black jazz artists.

B.B. King and Muddy Waters represented the blues, and Mahalia Jackson gospel.

Even pop and rock got a look in with The Fifth Dimension and Blood, Sweat and Tears.

For many jazz musicians, with large bands to support and threatened by rock and roll, the tours were “highly prized gigs”, financially and for the official artistic recognition for jazz, which racist conservatives had disparaged as disreputable and linked to drugs, crime and sexual depravity.

Dizzy Gillespie made the first State Department tour, but the ride was bumpy from the start.

Gillespie, an outspoken campaigner for world peace, disarmament and black civil rights, refused to attend State Department briefings, saying he “wasn’t going to apologise for the racist policies of America”, and adding (with reference to the US’s history of slavery, segregation, discrimination and white violence), “I’ve got three hundred years of briefing”.

The Jazz Ambassadors, an hour-long film currently available on the US Public Broadcasting network, deals with the period from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s when the US State Department sponsored overseas tours of famous bands led by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and others: here.

Thelonious Monk and Don Pullen were both southerners from different places and different generations, and both arrivants in New York – Monk from Rocky Mount, North Carolina as a small boy in 1922 and Pullen from Roanoke, Virginia, as a rapidly maturing pianist in 1964.

Poet David Lehman talks about the brilliant Jewish composers and lyricists whose work largely comprises the great American songbook: here.

3 thoughts on “USA: jazz music, racism, and Cold War

  1. Pingback: CIA, art, and the Cold War | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Nazi mass murder of Soviet prisoners of war in the Netherlands | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: Jazz trumpeter Wallace Roney killed by coronavirus | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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