This article 1st appeared in The Prices Do DC
When he was asked to describe the music he and his contemporaries were playing, famed pianist Thelonious Monk responded, “jazz is freedom. Think about that.”
So with that definition in mind, it really isn’t surprising that America decided to use jazz and its performers as cultural weapons in its idealogical Cold War against the former Soviet Union.
Recently, a panel was held at the National Archives to discuss the topic Jazz Diplomacy: Sending America’s Music to the World. It was part of an ongoing series of programs to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival.
“Since the beginning of jazz, music has been a prevalent symbol of freedom,” said John Hasse, curator of American Music at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
According to Dr. Penny Von Eschen, professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan, the use of jazz as a diplomatic tool was “accidental and improvised,” much like jazz itself.
From the beginning of the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union, Russia pushed its artistic preeminence to demonstrate it offered the better way of life to the existing and emerging nations of the world.
“They (the Russians) said we were a nation of gadgets and automobiles and a people of no culture,” Von Eschen said. “In essence, the US was reacting to this cultural warfare. But did the state department think of this? No. This came out of the jazz world. Musicians said the Russians can’t claim jazz.”
However, the fact that many jazz musicians were African-American and blacks in the late 1940s and 1950s were treated as inferiors in the South and other parts of the country initially threatened any musical diplomacy plans. The tours began laced with contradictions, but eventually the music won out. Black jazz musicians gained popularity for their American music. Trumpeter Louis Armstrong came to be known around the world as “The Ambassador of Democracy.” Duke Ellington and his band performed in more than 65 countries.
“The musicians were bringing a very different message of democracy, of who counts, and what is democracy, and what is egalitarianism,” Von Eschen noted.
Perhaps the biggest victory for jazz was delivered through The Voice of America shows aired by Willis Conover. Conover presented jazz programs for foreign listeners for more than 4 decades. In fact, while Voice of American language program transmissions were jammed in the Soviet Union, officials there allowed the music to play.
“It was a musical expression of the things happening in America,” said current director of Voice of America David Ensor. “The Soviet Union had a hierarchal structure of music and jazz really upended that.”
When questioned about playing American music produced by blacks, Conover had a quick reply. “Listening to skin instead of listening to music is irrational,” he was reported as saying.
Ironically, the Voice from America propelled both Conover and jazz to new heights overseas, but not at home. “He was well-known the world over, but he wasn’t known in the United States. In fact, jazz is more popular today in many countries than it is here,” Ensor explained.
David Killion, a former U.S. representative to UNESCO, said that although the Cold War is over, jazz is still serving a purpose around the world. “My message is that jazz diplomacy isn’t history, it’s contemporary,” Killion said.
“Jazz diplomacy may have started in the United States, but it has been embraced by the world,” he added. “In jazz, (as a player) you have to listen to what everyone else is playing, even if you don’t agree with it. Jazz teaches us that this world is big enough to accommodate all of us.”