Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War

          Although American jazz artists had been on international tours in various parts of the world almost since the music was invented, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the United States government began to see the value of jazz – America’s original music – in the fight for America’s interests in the global community.  When I say, “America’s interests,” I don’t exactly mean the high ideals of freedom and democracy.  In the 1950s, with the United States assuming the colonial mantle being abandoned by France and Britain, the White House and the State Department saw the value of sending popular jazz artists to generate good-will in the very places where, behind the scenes, the US was, well, behaving rather badly.  That is to say, back then, although Dizzy Gillespie might be playing a concert in some Middle East city, at the same time, the Central Intelligence Agency might be planning a coup to replace that nation’s president.
            This sort of thing happened more often than you might suspect, and in the new book Satchmo Blows Up the World, author Penny von Eschen presents a thorough and intelligent history of how jazz and the Cold War were so intimately intertwined.  You might say that jazz music provided the mute to some of the noisier (or at least sneakier) activities of the US during the Cold War.
            Beginning with a 1954European tour of Porgy and Bess sponsored by that well-known patron of the arts Dwight Eisenhauer, the State Department soon officially took over the annual recruitment and management of jazz tours to various “areas of special interest” in the world.  Dizzy Gillespie’s band visited the Middle East and South America; Benny Goodman and his orchestra swung through Thailand, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan, and other spots in the far east.  The Dave Brubeck Quartet traveled through Poland, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and even were even in Iraq during a coup in 1958.  On and on the list of musicians and nations goes – Louis Armstrong in Ghana, Duke Ellington in St. Petersburg, Mahalia Jackson in India, Buddy Guy in Zanzibar, and Blood Sweat and Tears in Romania.  Professor von Eschen has been thorough in her research, and although she perhaps includes too much detail, the accounts of American artists interacting with local musicians are almost always compelling.
            One of the paradoxes at the heart of these government-sponsored tours lies in the double standard they suggest as far as race is concerned.  Even as many parts of the United States and many American public officials attempted to interfere with the civil rights movement, overseas, African American artists and integrated jazz bands were held up as embodying American freedom and tolerance.
            More encouraging, however, is the growing acceptance in the public and in official circles of government support of the arts.  What began in some of Roosevelt’s WPA projects and developed with the State Department’s musical tours soon became official and permanent policy in the forms of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  More importantly, still, is the recognition that of all the gifts American has to offer the world, its rich cultural traditions are often the most appealing ones, and the ones most worthy of official support.

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1 comment:

Mark Hayes said...

It's about this time in the second semester when college students start searching for reviews of this book -- presumably reading my review rather than prepare for class in a more substantial way. So to those students at the University of Texas at Dallas -- do your homework! :)