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

Penny Von Eschen
Mar 31, 2008

Following the end of the Cold War and the opening up of communications channels for a free flow of information, the United States government played a less active role in promoting a positive image of American culture abroad, perhaps under the assumption that the international appeal of American popular culture would do the job on its own.  One of the unintended consequences of this hands-off approach to public diplomacy has been a rising tide of anti-Americanism, based upon, among other things, the inadequacy of popular culture to provide a full and accurate picture of American society and values.  There is now an increasing consensus that active steps need to be taken in order to counter the international perception of American society as uncultured and unsophisticated.  Reinvestigating the past successes and failures of American cultural diplomacy as described by Penny Von Eschen in her latest book on the “jazz ambassadors” of the Cold War might provide a good starting point for analysis.

Von Eschen’s thought provoking book entitled Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, explores how and why the U.S. Department of State sent American jazz artists around the world as cultural ambassadors during the Cold War.  On one hand, Von Eschen argues, the prominence of black artists, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, as well as integrated bands led by white musicians such as Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck, helped counter international criticism of racism and segregation in American society.  On the other, jazz music was promoted by the State Department as an exclusively American cultural contribution:  “Unlike classical music, theater, or ballet, jazz could be embraced by U.S. officials as a uniquely American art form.  Government officials and supporters of the arts hoped to offset what they perceived as European and Soviet superiority in classical music and ballet, while at the same time shielding America’s Achilles heel by demonstrating racial equality in action.”

Von Eschen’s survey of music as a cultural diplomacy tool begins with Dizzy Gillespie’s tour of the Middle East in 1956 and ends with Clary Terry’s tour of Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India in 1978.  In the context of the Cold War, however, perhaps most significant was the jazz ambassadors’ ability to penetrate the Iron Curtain and establish an influence where little existed in the way of cultural and ideological exchange.  Jazz tours of the Soviet Union appealed to the general public and often cunningly bypassed the Soviet authorities by impromptu public performances and unannounced jam sessions.  During Benny Goodman’s tour of the Soviet Union in 1962, Goodman took out his clarinet in Red Square and mocked the Soviet guards by playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” as they marched by.  There is no better testimony to the success and potent influence of such performances than the response of the Soviet authorities to attempts by Russian jazz musicians to participate in jam sessions or speak with the band members in private.  On the night of their final concert, Benny Goodman’s band looked on as the Soviet police whisked away the local jazz club leader.  Politics and culture intersected in strategic thinking across the Atlantic as well.  Occasionally, American Foreign Service Officers tried to identify Soviet jazz fans that might serve as intelligence contacts.  For example, after Duke Ellington’s tour of the Soviet Union in 1971, the State Department produced a study of jazz clubs in Leningrad, “in order to augment American intelligence on potentially pro-American Soviet citizens.”

Even though the jazz ambassadors received warm welcomes almost everywhere they went, Von Eschen is clear to point out that the effect of these cultural programs could be undercut by other methods employed to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals.  She concludes that covert operations to destabilize foreign governments undermined the goodwill generated by the jazz tours, yet her account also shows that the tours encouraged a positive view of American culture independent of American foreign policy.

As a professor of African American studies at the University of Michigan, Von Eschen gives special attention to the issue of race.  She attempts to walk the line between lauding jazz musicians as civil rights ambassadors and denouncing the State Department’s exploitation of black artists as pawns in the Cold War.  Von Eschen argues that the State Department relied on black jazz musicians to present a rose-colored image of American race relations, even as Jim Crow laws were still in place.  Yet, even if the musicians did not believe that they were representing a color-blind nation, many African-American jazz artists such as Duke Ellington took great pride in representing their race as well as their nation.  Others, including Dizzy Gillespie, distanced themselves from American nationalism and promoted jazz as a universal world-music.

Recognizing the popular appeal of African-American gospel and soul, the State Department joined forces with private promoters such as Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein and helped send a diverse range of American artists to strategically important areas that would normally be of little interest for commercial tours.  Blues legend BB King traveled to Dakur, Accra, and Lagos in 1970, and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson toured India in 1971.  In addition, George Wein helped organize eclectic jazz tours in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America.
The strong points of the book include an accessible style and excellent use of primary source documents from U.S. government archives, English language press reports, and first-hand interviews with musicians. Von Eschen’s book is concisely written and laden with informative and enlightening anecdotes.  One of the highlights of the book is Von Eschen’s description of the jazz musical “The Real Jazz Ambassadors,” a work that presents a satirical commentary on the jazz tours co-written by Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong in 1960.  The lyrics highlight the irony of black musicians being asked to represent a nation that still endorsed segregation.  The book also highlights American attempts to shape attitudes in the Middle East through cultural diplomacy such as Dave Brubeck’s 1958 tour of the Middle East, which included stops in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In Kabul, Brubeck’s quartet played for a mixed audience of Soviet and American military advisors eager for cultural diversion.  After the concert, a security advisor from California confided to Brubeck that the U.S. government should be more supportive of the arts.  Later in the tour, Brubeck played for employees of an oil company in Baghdad just days before a military coup over-threw the U.S. friendly regime.

In her discussion of race, the author walks a fine line between acknowledging the contributions of the jazz tours towards promoting civil rights and democracy and denouncing the abuse of black musicians by the U.S. government. Von Eschen’s arguments about imperialism and espionage are less convincing.  She poignantly draws attention to the contradiction between advocating democracy while supporting oppressive dictatorships abroad, yet her criticism of U.S. policy overlooks Soviet foreign policy by proxies.  Von Eschen’s critique of U.S. “imperial” ambitions makes little effort to respond to opposing points of view, preferring instead to cite like-minded critics.  In addition, more could have been done to represent the views of local non-English language press.  Nonetheless, Von Eschen’s book presents an informative historical survey of jazz in the service of American cultural diplomacy.

In the epilogue to her book, Penny Von Eschen laments that contemporary U.S. cultural diplomacy displays ignorance of the lessons of the past, and she warns of the danger of relying on McDonalds and Britney Spears to represent American culture abroad.  Since her book was published in 2004, the U.S. Department of State seems to have learned from the lessons of the Cold War jazz ambassadors.  In 2006, the State Department sponsored a series of jazz concerts to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Gillespie’s first jazz tour and has partnered with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to send American jazz bands abroad.  Signs such as these are encouraging, but whether future policy makers will truly heed Von Eschen’s call for a “jazz approach” to foreign policy remains to be seen.

About the reviewer

Matthew Thomas is a Doctoral student in Musicology at the University of Southern California and is currently working on his dissertation, which concerns jazz and cultural diplomacy in the Middle East.  Matt is an avid teacher and gives frequent pre–concert lectures for the Da Camera Society of Mt. St. Mary’s College.  He regularly contributes program notes for the annual Mozart Woche in Salzburg, Austria.  His writings on the folk music of Chechnya have been published in the online journal Resonance and he has presented a paper on the representation of the Crusades in medieval song at the international conference on Music and War in the Czech Republic.  His experience in foreign policy and public relations includes internships with the U.S. Department of State in Vienna, Austria and Hamburg, Germany.  As a professional singer, he performs with the USC chamber choir and works as a soloist and section leader at churches in Los Angeles and Orange County.