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Satchmo Blows Up The World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War by Penny Marie von Eschen

This is a book I bought to have some background on the use of jazz as part of Cold War-era promotion of America abroad, primarily for research on a longer work I was (and still am) considering writing set in the world of “Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues.” Interestingly, during the Cold War (from the 1950s through the 1970s) jazz music and jazz musicians were used by the American government in the same way circuses were used by the USSR, as part of what we now so often call a “hearts and minds” campaign carried out throughout the developing world.

The self-contradiction, of course, is obvious once you look at it. The US State Department was recruiting jazz musicians– often African-Americans — to go abroad and present America to the rest of the world as a racially egalitarian, “free” society. The image they were supposed to present, ironically, contradicted the experiences of many of the musicians themselves. The politics — artistic, cultural, racial — of the artists seems to have been assumed secondary (when they were even known) to the value and impact of their work as artistic ambassadors to the rest of the world. Well, for some of the musicians, those politics weren’t really secondary at all. Some, like Dizzy Gillespie, could be quite outspoken, and others, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, were gentler yet, as von Eschen argues, they were also firm on some issues in their own way.

The fact that jazz music, particularly, was itself also being used in this way is especially interesting since African-Americans’ claim on it as being an artform springing from their culture, experience, and traditions was long part of the reason it was, by mainstream (white) society, dismissed as unserious music. (Remember, it was radical and rebellious of the beat generation to be so into it; even today, one often hears musicians who have one foot in classical music and one foot in jazz refer to the classical side of their training or repertory as “legit,” as if to imply jazz is illegitmate, non-legitimate, or something else.) Just as it was in the State Department’s interests to present both white and black jazz musicians — often integrated in groups when possible — as a symbol of racial harmony in an America that was, in fact, being torn asunder by resistance, especially in the South, to the civil rights movement, it was in the State Department’s interests to deracinate jazz, to make it not an African-American art form, but rather as an African-American art form. The erasure I’ve representec with a strikethrough is there is on purpose, of course, for it was obvious to many that jazz was not merely American, but African-American: in Nazi Germany, it was characterized particularly as the music of Blacks and Jews when it was finally banned.

Attitudes towards American jazz music — and its musicians — in parts of the world where there was no native jazz tradition were fascinating. African nations seemed mostly eager to embrace it, probably in part because musicians like Louis Armstrong were sent there. The USSR’s liasons, on the other hand, dismissed out of hand the idea of having Dizzy Gillespie visit, finally ending up with Benny Goodman — to the disappointment of many Russian and Eastern-European jazz fans. Khruschev reportedly scolded Benny Goodman mildly for playing “that stuff” despite being knowledgeable about classical music and a fan of Mozart. Likewise, it was a white jazz musician — Dave Brubeck — who toured a large number of countries in one year, in India and East Asia. (He played a gig in Seoul, apparently, though I haven’t found any info on it). It’s not surprising that, even with an individual as progressive as Brubeck happened to be, von Eschen finds occasion to describe as “self-absorbed” his analysis of the civil rights movement, offered when he was asked by a reporter in some venue abroad.

I’m artificially splitting up the artists into different camps by race, though, and that’s one thing von Eschen’s book manifestly reminds us isn’t necessarily the most useful or interesting way of seeing the State Department tours, or these musicians in relation to the politics of their art. Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie may both have been African-Americans, but Ellington was much more reserved and soft-spoken in his politics (he remained a Republican from the days when the Democrats were the Jim Crow party of the South) and Dizzy Gillespie was much more outspoken and honest when people abroad asked him questions that made his State Department handlers groan with terror. Likewise, the problems that arose in Benny Goodman’s band, leading to about as close to a mutiny as is possible in a musical group, were not racial tensions but rather tensions between most of the band, who wanted to play a newer style of music and to show their best work to the Russians, and Goodman, who hated star soloists, clung to an older style of jazz, and pissed off basically his whole band (and many jazz fans behind the Iron Curtain, to boot). Both white and black musicians alike in Goodman’s band were angry, and were mutinying against Goodman.

In fact, to some small degree, jazz actually did manage to be a microcosmic experiment in the building of the very utopian world that America was so bent on selling to the rest of humanity —  jazz musicians by the late 50s and 1960s were far ahead of the American government in respect to integration, and one reason Louis Armstrong didn’t play a State Department tour early on (even though he inspired the series of government-funded tours abroad!) was because he was such an enormous success as a musician. It wasn’t perfect, of course: undoubtedly, there was racism in the music business, in the club business, and even among certain musicians. But the norms among musicians seemed to be that it was about the music first, and that race mattered less than chops, than skills, and the ability of a musician to listen and collaborate.

Certainly, this allowed Brubeck and Louis Armstrong, two of the most famous of the State Department tour musicians, to collaborate on what is, when we look back on it now, a really remarkable musical piece titled The Real Amabassadors, from which the book I’m reviewing takes its title. You can hear bits and pieces of it on Youtube, which is great:

… but, sadly, the musical has never enjoyed a full-scale production, as noted on the website dedicated to the musical. The musical essentially is an encapsulation of the strangeness of the State Department tours, featuring a case of mistaken identity — “Is the American ambassador really this black man with such wonderful musical skills?” ask a group of Africans who are confused by the arrival of an Armstrong-like character (played by Armstrong) appearing in their country ahead of schedule, but just in time according to the schedule of a certain diplomatic ambassador. I really do wish there was a video we could watch, but none was ever made, apparently. Anyway, if you want to listen to it, it’s available on CD, as well as in more illicit forms all over the net. It may not have enjoyed a full production, but it’s certainly made some kind of mark on the world.

Still, even listening shows a very clear grappling with the civil rights movement and the question of race equality in America. While von Eschen notes that Armstrong sang straight — and rather movingly — what librettists David and (his wife) Iola Brubeck wrote for humor, it’s impossible to claim the text itself doesn’t at least confront questions of racism in America, in music, in jazz music and its use by the government, and the consistent (and continuing) devaluation of the arts in American society.

Von Eschen’s book covers all of this, but much more, and with a very sensitive touch. She really makes you feel something very much like wonder at the fact that Armstrong, playing a gig somewhere in Africa (I forget where, maybe Ghana?) glimpsed someone who looked like his (deceased) mother dancing to his song, and said that he felt he’d finally come home. With tears in his eyes, he thanked the people of the country for hosting him. The annoyance of Ellington’s band at being micromanaged, and of musicians sneaking off to attend jam sessions with local musicians in various places, is inspiring and funny, as is the tragedy of Ellington’s  death, after the deaths of so many of his band members — one, at least, while on a State Department tour abroad.

Von Eschen doesn’t shy away from any issue: sexism comes up, in that almost all the touring musicians were male (and the few female musicians who toured early on were treated relatively poorly). The status of jazz in relation to other kinds of music, the attitude of the State Department debriefing Gillespie’s band before the inaugural tour — it was felt necessarily to advise the band, in much more vague terms than I’ll bother to use, that the drug-use and whoring was to be kept discreet if done at all; the inefficiencies and disorganization of the State Department in organizing tours; the reactions of the musicians to the places they visited… there is so much in this book. It’s mind-blowing, wonderful, and worth the price of admission many times over.

The only thing I wish is that von Eschen had filled in the blanks as far as to what degree these tours served to accelerate the turning of African-American jazz musicians to non-Western influences. It seems to me that all of the places toured in the late 50s and 60s began, just around that time, turning up in various works in jazz. Not just in titles, like the Sonny Rollins tune Airegin (which is “Nigeria” backwards), but also in musical contents, in alternative instrumentation, and so on. Somehow, I have a feeling that even though John Coltrane didn’t go on one of these State Department tours, there may well be some reason that he ended up getting so interested in Indian music that he named his son Ravi, after Ravi Shankar, and that one of his most famous late works is a tune called “Om.”

(Ironically, Ravi Coltrane did participate in State Department tour to India in 2005, and even met Shankar there!)

It’s not just Trane, of course. There’s a kind of upwelling of interest in non-Western music in the late 1950s, one that grew ever more intense among jazz musicians (especially African-Americans, especially in the area of free jazz) through the 1960s and 1970s. Yusef Lateef, McCoy Tyner, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and all kinds of other musicians were all getting into Eastern and African music, in part as a way of connecting to long-lost roots, but also as a way of exploring alternatives to Western tradition, and the stifling restrictions imposed by Western instruments, and of further pushing the limits that were always tested and defied by that radical coterie within the world of jazz.

Whether the interest in specific places like West Africa, India, the Near East, and Japan was promoted by musicians and their politics, by domestic politics and culture (the American fascinating with Japan after World War II, for example, making the koto and shakuchachi instruments of interest to Western musicians), or whether there was some backwash of influence into the jazz world from these State Department tours is a question von Eschen doesn’t address. I guess that would be a whole different book, and who knows — perhaps someone else has explored the area, and I just don’t know about it?

In any case, I want to stress again that this book is really worth checking out, not only if you’re interested in jazz (though it helps) but in the case of anyone interested in African-American cultural history, in the involvement of government (and government funding) in the arts, and in the propaganda that the US State Department used during the Cold War to divert attention from the civil rights struggle that unimaginably rocked, and changed, America during this period. And if you do love jazz, this will open up doors that, if you’re like me, scarcely realized were even there! Well worth your time.

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