History’s soundtrack: America’s swinging musical diplomacy

Against the background of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and a growing civil rights movement, America’s foremost jazz musicians travelled the world as cultural ambassadors, becoming a triumphant force in international diplomacy and domestic politics.

Louis Armstrong in 1958. Credit: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Louis Armstrong in 1958. Credit: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Music has charms to soothe the wild beast, to soften rocks or bend the knotted oak.’ Poet and playwright, William Congreve wrote these oft-quoted words in the late seventeenth century, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that American musicians were cast as cultural emissaries, sent abroad to soften the country’s knotty image in the eyes of the world. The US was still a decade away from the Voting Rights Act of 1965, aimed at stopping voter suppression as multifariously practised in many states and local jurisdictions. Before the law, Southern states suppressed Black voter turnout in various ways, including setting literacy tests, or the recitation of the constitution as a condition for casting ballots. The absence of the freedom to vote that defines democracy drove the first American civil rights movement, which was getting underway around the same time as the war in Vietnam (1955-1975). The Cold War with the Soviet Union was already in full swing, and the Russians seized upon both segregation and the ‘war against communism’ to accuse the United States of cultural barbarism.

As America competed with the Russians for moral ascendancy alongside military and technical might, it was obliged to acknowledge that racism made its ‘liberty and justice for all’ rhetoric a lie. Something had to be done to raise America’s tarnished international profile, and congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. proposed music as the solution. A clergyman and representative of several New York districts including Harlem, where he was born, Powell argued that while Soviets had the Bolshoi Ballet, America had jazz. Heeding his advice, in 1956 the US State Department began sponsoring concerts of world-famous American musicians, appointing Powell’s friend, be-bop giant Dizzy Gillespie, as its first jazz ambassador and sending him to Pakistan, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Greece. Pioneering jazz trumpeter Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong visited the Congo, and Cairo 1960-61, where he was photographed blowing his horn for the Sphinx; big band leader Benny Goodman played his clarinet in Moscow’s Red Square in 1962; and consummate composer, pianist and orchestra leader Duke Ellington was emissary to South Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe in 1963. Call it propaganda but audiences were rapt and the musicians loved it, basking in the glow of multicultural welcomes while absorbing new rhythms and sounds.

Although jazz was a synthesis of existing forms such as the blues and ragtime, it was also evolution, embracing improvisation as opposed to a pre-determined structure. Jazz musicians still read musical notation, but they were no longer required to play by the book; their improvised solos conveyed elated defiance. Europe fell in love with jazz from the start when the 1920s Jazz Age trends in music, dance and fashion swept the Continent. Swing bands were hugely popular, with aspiring local musicians joining their ranks. In the 1930s, jazz greats such as saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong lived in European capitals for months or years at a time, nurturing an indigenous jazz scene.

The Second World War did not diminish Europe’s love of jazz, despite the Nazis banning it from the radio and imposing strict conditions for performance. In Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, for example, vocal improvisation (‘scatting’) was forbidden, upright basses had to be bowed not plucked, and saxophones were entirely out of the question. What the Third Reich labeled ‘degenerate music’ became a symbol of dissent and in the wake of Hitler’s defeat, jazz was Europe’s victory song. Nor was the Iron Curtain impermeable. Beginning in 1955, jazz programming on the Voice of America radio station reached 100 million listeners in Soviet-controlled central and Eastern Europe, as well as the Soviet Union, prompting The New York Times to hail jazz as America’s ‘secret sonic weapon’.

On tour, the jazz ambassadors met with state and community representatives as well as artists, but it was their impact on the public that counted most. In Athens in 1956, the same activists who had thrown stones at the office of the US Information Service hoisted Dizzy Gillespie on their shoulders, chanting his name like a mantra. When Duke Ellington performed in Moscow, a US diplomat reported that he was welcomed as ‘the second coming,’ with an enthusiastic young Russian, shouting, ‘we’ve been waiting for you for centuries!’. Virtually all the countries the musicians visited were awaiting salvation of one sort or another, whether, in Europe, from post-Second World War economic hardships or in African countries seeking independence from exploitative colonial overlords, and America’s mostly black jazz musicians, survivors of racial segregation, were hailed as heroes.

Born of hardship, jazz was the sound of truimph over adversity and the bands that played it were an ideal society in microcosm, where diverse individuals expressing their unique talents augmented the common good. Improvisation was synonymous with a freedom that, more than the mere absence of constraints, implied a skillful and responsive openness. Audiences everywhere rejoiced, as did US diplomats. ‘You can’t get as much good-will out of a tank as you can get out of Dizzy Gillespie’s band,’ one wrote. The jazz ambassadors had clout at home as well as abroad. Leveraging his high public profile, Louis Armstrong cancelled a 1957 trip to Moscow until President Dwight Eisenhower sent the National Guard to protect black students enrolled at a white Arkansas high school who had been refused entry. His stance drew media attention to the racial conflict and, ceding to the pressure, Eisenhower sent in the troops.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, jazz influenced artists of every genre to break with convention. ‘The whole point of modern poetry, dance … performance, prose,’ wrote poet Allen Ginsberg, ‘was the element of improvisation and spontaneity … and jazz was a model for almost everybody.’ As in the arts, so in society – the status quo was under fire. Anti-war demonstrations began in earnest in 1964, protesting America’s involvement in Vietnam, with university students leading marches nationwide. ‘My saxophone is like a machine gun in the hands of the Viet Cong’ said Archie Shepp, one of many musicians who took a political stand, especially as the peace movement overlapped with, and lent momentum to, the fight for civil rights. Unlike other arts or music, jazz was inherently political, charged with rebellion, wrote music critic Stanley Crouch:

The musicians themselves [represented] a way of saying no to everything that held you down … [they were] the blood on the knife of the music … specialized in the wounds that men had to live through and that were somehow conquered and simultaneously purged if expressed in all their anguish and anger.

On July 2, 1964, American President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, creed, religion, sex or nationality. It was a hollow victory for black citizens still denied the vote, subjected to hate crimes, police aggression, and prejudice – both at home and abroad as members of the armed forces, defending a nation that refused them full citizenship rights. In September 1964 Martin Luther King visited Cold War Berlin to deliver a speech for the city’s ‘Culture Week’ (which comprised the first Berlin Jazz Festival) underlining the connection between black freedom, black music, and the fight for human rights wherever it was waged. In his speech he said:

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls. Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from the music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

In a city divided by opposing ideologies, King received a hero’s welcome in West Berlin and was even allowed to cross Checkpoint Charlie without a passport to the East, where thousands attended his sermons. Acknowledging Berlin ‘as a symbol of the division of men on the face of the Earth,’ King, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that year, affirmed that ‘[all people] on either side of the wall are God’s children, and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact.’

Transmitting a message of faith in democracy, the jazz ambassadors toured until 1978, when funding presumably ran out. Tellingly, the concept of musical diplomacy was revived in 2005, to help rehabilitate America’s image under the administration of George W. Bush. The new programme, ‘Rhythm Road’ operated on a much smaller scale, with lesser-known musicians of every genre, and continues under the auspices of a partially-State Department funded programme called American Music Abroad (currently running virtually, due to Covid-19). In 2008, the Meridian International Center in Washington, DC opened the hugely popular photographic exhibition ‘Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World’ to honour the participants and their achievements. Last year, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, gave a nod to the history of jazz diplomacy: ‘America’s arts and culture are a major source of our national strength, our musicians captivate the world.’ True enough, but there’s no form of American music as universally popular and politically significant as jazz once was, not least because of the personal histories and motivations of the accomplished men and women who performed it. Today, with voter suppression once again raising its Hydra-head in America, a second civil rights movement has yet to coalesce. If history is any indication, maybe what it needs is a soundtrack.


Maria Golia