Cool Jazz as Cold War Policy

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.”

Santana Scores, Rod Stewart Not So Much in Arena Concert

You could say we’re in a 4th generation of rock concerts. In the early 60s, multiple groups would appear together on one bill, each playing a few of their hits. By the late 60s, popular bands like The Rolling Stones would headline a show, with 2 or more opening acts playing shorter sets for exposure. As the century ended, huge acts like U2 or Bruce Springsteen would play for 3 or more hours without an opening act. In recent years, with money tight and concert costs climbing, there has been a new development – 2 acts who once filled arenas as headliners sharing a co-billed tour.

This year, for example, we have Def Leopard and Kiss, Motley Crue and Alice Cooper, Jeff Beck and Z. Z. Top, and Pat Benatar and Cher.

Last night, a co-billed tour of Carlos Santana and Rod Stewart performed at the Verizon Center as part of their tour labeled The Voice, The Guitar, The Songs

Santana explained his reasoning behind the pairing:

“People ask me, ‘Carlos, what do you and brother Rod have in common?” I say well, we both listened to Sam Cooke. We both listened to Otis Redding. We both listened to Etta James. We both listened to Nina Simone. Now, we both play black music for white people. And we both like to drive the girls crazy.”

Santana, backed by a tight band including another guitar player, a keyboard player, a bass player, a drummer, 2 percussionists, 2 horn players, and 2 vocalists, then proceeded to deliver a blistering 90-minute set of tunes spanning his 45-year career.

For long-time fans, there was “Black Magic Woman” segueing into “Oye Coma Va.: There was “Jin-go-la-ba” from his first album. Complete with the No Rain chant and clips from Woodstock, there was the encore, the iconic “Soul Sacrifice.”

There were also songs for newer fans like “Maria Maria” and “Smooth.”

There were also several welcome surprises including a rousing version of “Tequilla” by the Champs, a guest appearance by guitar great Jimmy Herring on on the blues tune “If Anyone Can” and interspersed snippets of such rock classics as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (the Beatles), “Third Stone from the Sun” (Jimi Hendrix), “Low Rider” (War), and even “The Pink Panther Theme” (Henry Mancini).

But while Santana played as powerfully as ever, the years appear not to have been as kind to Stewart, who delivered an hour-and-45-minute set more Vegas smooth than Woodstock raw. Even his great hit “Maggie May” sounded perfunctory and he spent more times kicking soccer balls to the crowd during “Hot Legs” than he did singing.

In fact, the high point of the set was Santana’s re-emergence to join Stewart on a cover of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind.” After the pair traded vocal lines and guitar licks, Stewart told the crowd “We’ve been on this tour for 2 months and every night Carlos comes out and plays something completely different. That inspires me to sing the song differently.”

Hopefully, there may be more such inspiring help on the way.  Prior to playing “Stay with Me,” Stewart told the crowd, “A long time ago, I played in a band called The Faces. We keep talking about getting back together and we will do it. But we better hurry.”

I hope the Faces do reunite. Or Stewart and Jeff Beck can patch up differences and tour as The Jeff Beck Group. Because until that version of “Rod the Mod” returns I think I’ve seen enough of the “Vegas Review Rod.”

So as someone who has seen you in concert more than 10 times since 1968, I’m urging you – please make those calls right away. I want my old Rod Stewart back. If Carlos, and Mick, and Paul can do it, you can, too.

Extra! Extra! Read All About It
More Santana/Stewart from The Prices Do DC
Apparently, the Santana over Stewart DC night was typical of the tour. Here is a review from Jon Bream in The Minneapolis Star Tribune that, with a few exceptions,  could just have easily described last night’s Washington show.

Rediscovering Toby Beau and “My Angel Baby” While Cruising the Hawaiian Islands

Toby Beau — On and off stage they are Balde Silva and Rennetta Dennett Silva

In 1978, I was playing in a South Jersey band called Time Peace. We were performing classic rock songs, as well as some radio hits of the time. One song that was always well received was “My Angel Baby,” a No. 1 hit by a band called Toby Beau.

Now I hadn’t thought about “My Angel Baby” or Toby Beau for 40 years. But that changed earlier this month when my wife and I boarded The Pride of America for a cruise around the Hawaiian Islands and discovered that Toby Beau was going to be performing two shows on the ship. 

In its original format, Toby Beau was a five-piece band out of southern Texas. Today, it’s a duo consisting of Balde Silva, the original singer and co-writer of “My Angel Baby,” and his wife Rennetta Dennet Silva, who has been with Silva since the ‘70s.

During about five hours of informal chatting and formal interviewing over three days, Balde, sometimes joined by the striking and incredibly friendly Rennetta, told me the 40-year story of Toby Beau.

Like so many music lovers who later became musicians, Balde vividly recalls the moment when he realized music could be more than his passion; he wanted it to be his life’s work. “It was seeing the Doors on Ed Sullivan”, Balde says. “You could hear that Vox organ and that guitar. And then there was Jim Morrison.”

Around that time, a couple of Balde’s older cousins formed a rock band and young Balde was given an important job. One of the guitar chords could short out when it was put in an amp, so as the band rehearsed, Balde would hold the chord steady so it wouldn’t wiggle. As the band played, he would sing along. Soon, he found himself fronting the band as lead vocalist.

“The singer they had wasn’t very good and I could sing pretty well. So we switched positions. He started holding the chord and I became the lead singer,” Balde says, chuckling as he recalled his inauspicious introduction to the rock band world.

After playing with several configurations of South Texas musicians, Balde found himself with the four other musicians who would become the first version of Toby Beau. The band was named after one of the last shrimp boats docked in the Gulf Coast community of Port Isabel, Texas.

The group started out performing covers in clubs all over Texas, but eventually began writing songs of their own. One of those songs was “My Angel Baby,” co-written by Balde and now-deceased guitarist and band member Danny McKenna. Soon, the group signed a major three-record deal with RCA and found they were going to be produced by KISS producer Sean Delaney.

Balde said the band’s rise was rapid and eye-opening. “One day we were playing in these greasy bars in San Antonio and the next day we were recording in New York with all these big bands,” Balde noted.

Propelled by the band’s first single “My Angel Baby,” Toby Beau was soon getting airplay all over the country and Canada. The single, with its updated 1950s feel and harmonica solo reminiscent of something like the Rascals might have recorded in their heyday, spent 13 weeks climbing the Billboard charts. It reached No. 1 on the Easy Listening charts, while rising to No. 13 on the pop charts. “My Angel Baby” quickly earned gold for receiving more than a million radio plays.

Suddenly, the band found itself touring with many of the biggest acts of the ‘70s such as the Doobie Brothers, Bob Seger, the Steve Miller Band, Steely Dan, and ZZ Top, all of whom are now enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“That was a wild time,” Rennetta says. “Wild, but fun while you were young”.

But when the band began recording its second album, problems developed. They tried recording in New York City, Miami, and Nashville, but were unable to recapture the magic of “My Angel Baby”. When finally released, the second album did include a cover of “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” written by John D. Loudermilk, who also composed the classic “Tobacco Road”. “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” had previously been the number 6 pop hit for the Casinos in 1967 and a No. 1 on the country charts for Eddy Arnold in 1968. The 1979 version by Toby Beau only reached 57 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and 7 on the Adult Contemporary List.

By the completion of that album, all four of Balde’s fellow band members had left the group. However, he decided to record the third album for RCA on his own, a move which allowed him to retain the rights to use the name Toby Beau.

After that album, Balde and Renetta, accompanied by various musicians, toured as Toby Beau, playing smaller music venues and festivals, clubs, and bars. As the 21 Century dawned, the two – now just a duo – found themselves also working on cruise ships. After 7 years, Balde and Rennetta wanted to forego cruise performance. However, their agent said they should do one more cruise.

“I heard Rennetta holler in the background, ‘See if we can do something in Hawaii. We’ve never been there’. Well that was 12 years ago and since then we have been right here performing on the ship,” Balde explained.

The Pride of America cruises around Hawaii all 52 weeks of the year, so the Toby Beau duo can book work as much as they want. Currently, their contract specifies that they perform two shows, one on Saturday night and one on Sunday night. That means they have the rest of the cruise to do what they want, which often involves exploring the islands. It also means they can have an almost-regular scheduled. For example, Rennetta apologized for cutting our chat short on Sunday night because she and her husband always make that movie date night while the ship is docked overnight in Kawai.

As for the two shows, one a tribute to the Beatles and the other to the Eagles, are unique. Balde and Rennetta play the performance live, but the drums and other backing instruments have been pre-recorded by Balde for live playback.

Actually, the pre-recordings have a live feel, not like many such accompaniments that sound artificial and machine-like. Balde explained there is a simple reason for that fact. “I guess you heard a few mistakes,” he said. “I was going to take them out, but when I listened to them I thought such things occur in live performances so I left them in,” he said.

To enhance the accuracy of the show, Balde employs some the same guitars that George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney used for the Beatles and Glen Fry, Bernie Leadon, Don Felder, and Joe Walsh played for specific Eagles songs.

The show itself is unique for such tribute concerts. Balde has chosen one song from each album of the Beatles and the Eagles that truly captures the sound of the band at the time the LP was released. Balde and Rennetta alternate telling the story of the groups, meaning that their show is not only musically interesting, but a lesson in rock music history and popular culture as well.

From the reaction and applause both nights, the duo’s talents and the shows’ formats are being enthusiastically received by the cruise showroom audiences. One highlight of the Beatles’ night was a show-closing rendition of the classic “Hey Jude,” complete with an audience singalong and in-time, above-the-head hand waving. My personal favorite from the two nights was a spirited “Life in Fast Lane,” while the audience appeared awed at Toby Beau’s close cover version of the Eagles “Hotel California” from the band’s best-selling album by the same name.

The positive reception was demonstrated quite a few times during our interview-chat sessions as cruisers would stop by our table to tell Balde and Rennetta how much they enjoyed the shows and talk music with the pair.

I will be writing much more about Toby Beau in the future (they will play a major role in my third book in what I am calling my Rock of Agers series which looks at how rock & roll evolved into rock, which today continues its popularity as classic rock), but here are the answers to two questions I asked: 

The first – are you disappointed that your hits came early and because of changing conditions in the music industry you haven’t been able to replicate that success?

“No,” Balde answers emphatically. “I’ve always enjoyed live performing more than studio work. I love seeing the fans, watching their reactions, and getting a chance to talk to them. And getting to do it with Rennetta makes it that much better”. 

And the final – Balde, do you have regrets about spending 40 years in the music businesses with all its inherent ups and downs?

“When I was young, all I wanted to do was sing. And that’s all I’ve ever done. I dreamed of being a rock-and-roller and that’s what I became. My advice now to young people is never give up on your dream and always be ready when the dream comes – for it can come out of nowhere so you have to be ready”. 

Encore

            As an author who writes articles and books about classic rock I have the great opportunity to meet many people in the music business. Some are nice. Some are not. Some are normal. Some are not. But few I have are as engaging and friendly as Balde and Rennetta. I think the fact that they have been together for 40+ years in a business where 40 months in the more the average speaks strongly to their dedication and character. In fact, I’m certain that if they lived next door, you would want them for friends. Plus, the three of us could probably talk for years about the highs and lows of the music business, along with stories of all the fascinating people you run into. 

            If you do or don’t recall Toby Beau or “My Angel Baby,”, make yourself a note to check them out if you get a chance. You won’t be disappointed. And, if you want, you can tell them Dave sent you.

You Can Have Real Fun, Fun, Fun in the Presence of Genius

The one and only Brian Wilson

Imagine you were celebrating your birthday in 2020 and you could go back to 1962 when you were an elementary school student. Or 1965 when you were in 9th grade. Or 1966, 1967, 1968 when you walked the hallways of your high school. Or 1969 when you started college. Or 1973 when you graduated college, got married, and had a son.

Well, of course, there are no time machines, but last night, on the date of my wife’s 69th birthday, Judy and I vicariously had a chance to do the next best thing as we listened to Brian Wilson and his 11-member band perform many of the greatest hits he composed for his Hall of Fame California surf-sound group The Beach Boys at the MGM Casino just outside Washington, DC.

It’s been said that each song we hear from our past is like a tiny time capsule that unlocks to let us vividly recall all the places we were and all the people we were with when we first heard the tune.

And few songwriters have the ability to transport us back to our past better than Brian Wilson and the exquisite harmonies and sense of time and place he incorporated into the string of smash hits, ground-breaking albums, and B-sides he created for the Beach Boys. 

The story of Wilson’s rise to become one of the best of rock & roll music’s greatest songwriters and his subsequent descent into depression and mental illness has been thoroughly documented in print and film. Indeed, Wilson still periodically struggles with mental issues. For example, he had to cancel a portion of his tour last year, saying he felt mentally insecure. In a letter to his fans Wilson wrote: “It is no secret that I have been living with mental illness for many decades. I’ve been struggling with stuff in my head. I’m going to rest, recover, and work with my doctors on this. The music and my fans keep me going and I know this will be something I can AGAIN overcome”.

And on a chilly Wednesday night, Wilson’s fans, ecstatic that he was well enough to resume touring, showered their idol with applause after each song, even those few obscure enough only to be familiar to fervent Beach Boys enthusiasts.

And while Wilson, who will turn 80 in June, today struggles to hit some notes and is forced to rely on a teleprompter for the words to some songs, these were minor setbacks that the audience was willing to ignore as they danced in the aisles and rose as one for a heartfelt standing ovation when the 90-minute, 27-song concert ended. The night had clearly demonstrated they were in the presence of a genius who had created an entire genre (surf music), wrote two dozen Top 40 hits for the Beach Boys, composed a tune – “God Only Knows” – which no less of an expert than Paul McCartney has called the best song ever written, and has had his creations compared favorably with those of such legendary classical composers Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

Earlier, Wilson had been interviewed by Jason Fraley of WTOP. Wilson told the reporter that although he hasn’t written any songs for a few years, he has some new ideas which he would like to record soon.

But for now, while new Wilson material would be great, his audience, which spans multiple generations, is quite content to enjoy the hits, the oldest of which would now be qualified to be members of AARP.

Asked why he thinks the Beach Boys and their music have remained so popular, Wilson told Fraley “It’s evergreen. It’s forever”.

And many of his rock contemporaries agree. Here’s a sample of what some of rock’s s best have said about Brian Wilson, his tunes, and his prodigious talent.

Bob Dylan

            Jesus, that ear. He should donate it to the Smithsonian. Brian Wilson, he made all his records with four tracks, but you couldn’t make his records if you had a hundred tracks today.    

Beatles Producer George Martin

            If there is one person that I have to select as a living genius of pop music, I would choose Brian Wilson. Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened. Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.

David Crosby of CSNY

            Brian was the most highly regarded pop musician in America, hands down. “In My Room” was the defining point for me. When I heard it, I thought “I give up – I can’t do that – I’ll never be able to do that.”

David Gilmour of Pink Floyd

            Even in those very early days of the Beach Boys, songs like “In My Room” and “Don’t Worry Baby” were giving the indication that Brian Wilson wanted to paint with a much more colorful palette than was offered by surf music he was so adapt at. His brilliance leapt from strength to strength over a very short period and, in a little over four years, he mastered the art of songwriting, record production, orchestral arrangements and every form of studio trickery to culminate with the wonderful songs on Pet Sounds.

Tom Petty

            I think I would put him up there with any composer – especially Pet Sounds. I don’t think there’s anything better than that, necessarily. I don’t think you’d be out of line comparing him to Beethoven – to any composer. The word genius is used a lot with Brian. I don’t know if he’s a genius or not, but I know his music is probably as good a music as you can make.

From “California Girls” to “Love and Mercy” Brian’s band was hot.

MGM Set List

  1. California Girls (1965)
  2. Dance, Dance, Dance (1964)
  3. I Get Around (1965)
  4. Shut Down (1963)
  5. Little Deuce Coupe (1963)
  6. Little Honda (1964)
  7. Salt Lake City (1965)
  8. Surfer Girl (1962)
  9. Don’t Worry Baby (1964)
  10. California Saga: California (1973) – written by Al Jardine
  11. Do It Again (1968)
  12. Let Him Run Wild (1965)
  13. Darlin’ (1967)
  14. Heroes and Villains (1967)
  15. Feel Flows* (1971) –written by Carl Wilson
  16. Wild Honey * (1967) 
  17. Sail On, Sailor* (1973)
  18. I Can Hear Music (1969) – Ronettes cover
  19. Wouldn’t It Be Nice (1966)
  20. Sloop John B (1966)
  21. God Only Knows (1966)
  22. Good Vibrations (1967)
  23. Help Me, Rhonda (1965)
  24. Barbara Ann (1965)
  25. Surfin’ USA (1963)
  26. Fun, Fun, Fun (1964)
  27. Love and Mercy (1968)

*Sung by Blondie Chaplain

Notes and Noise from the Show

  • There were many highlights during the night, but my personal concert capstone was the three-song mini-set song by Sonny Chaplain. Chaplain, a South African musician who has toured extensively with the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, also played lead guitar on the three numbers – “Feel Flows,” “Wild Honey” and “Sail On, Sailor.” Chaplain brought both psychedelic guitar effects and an invigorated feel to the show. It was clearly evident that he was enjoying playing with Wilson again, whom he called “the maestro.”
  • When the Beach Boys began, they were known as a family band since Wilson was joined by his two brothers, Carl and Dennis, both of whom are dead. But the family concept is being continued on this tour as Matt Jardine, the son of Beach Boys Al Jardine, who is co-featured on this tour with Wilson, sings high harmony and even some lead vocals.
  •  Wilson was one of the first rock songwriters to use a theremin (a musical instrument with high, outer-space like sounds that is played not by touch, but by running your hands over the instrument to control frequency and volume). It was extremely cool to hear the theremin live on a few songs, especially Wilson’s classic “Good Vibrations”. 
  • Of course, with a catalog as extensive as Wilson’s, not all of his hits can be performed in every show. The one I missed most tonight was “In My Room,” one of the greatest songs about loneliness ever composed.
  • How many artists could close a show with this many super hits in a row – “God Only Knows,” “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Barabara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun?”  Well, Brian Wilson can and did.
  • The last song was an extremely poignant, powerful, and, given the current divisiveness in Washington, DC and the country, appropriate “Love and Mercy,” which gave its title to the recent critically acclaimed biographical movie about the head Beach Boy. Wilson played the song alone on his piano, while the other 11 band members joined in on harmony vocals. Here are the first stanzas of Wilson’s moving message we all need to hear in these troubled times:

I was sittin’ in a crummy movie with my hands on my chin
Oh the violence that occurs seems like we never win

Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight
So, love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

I was lyin’ in my room and the news came on T.V.
A lotta people out there hurtin’ and it really scares me

Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight
So, love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

Encore

If you would like to discover more about Wilson and the Beach Boys, you can read my book Come Together: How the Baby Boomers, the Beatles, and a Youth Counterculture Combined to Create the Music of the Woodstock Generation. Come Together contains a relatively in-depth look at two Brian Wilson songs – “The Warmth of the Sun” and “Surfin’ USA”. It can be purchased at the Politics and Prose book store in Washington, DC. or by clicking here.