The Cold War and the Ambassadors of Jazz

Jazz is an indigenous American art form, a creolization of the musical cultures of Africa, Latin America, and Europe. Its keynotes are groove and interplay, self-expression and improvisation, flow and flexibility. What jazz has always offered any and all individuals is a method for creating a singular artistic voice and then merging it with others who share common musical ground. As guitarist Jim Hall reflects, “I’ve played in many countries, and in this music, I can communicate fully with musicians whose native language I can’t speak.” What’s American about jazz? According to Duke Ellington, “Jazz is a good barometer of freedom. The music is so free that many people … around the world say that it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country." For such reasons, jazz was often banned by totalitarian governments: in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1940s, in Nazi Germany and its occupied territories from 1935-1945, in Japan and Italy during World War II. In each of these nations, jazz became the music of underground resistance, as can be seen in the film Swing Kids (1997) or the novels and essays of Czech writer Josef Skvorecky (e.g., The Cowards (1956), The Bass Saxophone (1967), Talkin' Moscow Blues (1988)).

In the 1950s and 1960s, the US State Department sent Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie out on tours during the Cold War hoping to display an idea of freedom to Asians and Africans that would counteract the messages of the Soviet Union about racism in the US. All the artists received heroes' welcomes at airports - for Armstrong, especially in Africa - and yet it did not work out quite as planned. The State Department crafted tightly-controlled itineraries for the bands: performances at political dinners, concerts for colonial officials or American businessmen and their families. Each and every band strained under the control and simply went out and played with local musicians - in local clubs, in tents or private houses, even in the streets. In addition, Ellington, Brubeck, and especially Gillespie spoke freely about racism in the US and made no apologies for the government's actions during the civil rights movement.

Ellington and Gillespie brought rhythms and musical motifs from all over the world into jazz and vice-versa during this period. Gillespie's main focus was Latin American music and rhythms, beginning with bringing Afro-Cuban drummer Chano Pozo into his big band in the late 1940s. Long after these tours, Dizzy Gillespie's dedication to jazz as the first global music remained unsurpassed. In the last band he organized, the United Nations Orchestra, musicians included men and women from Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, and Italy, as well as Euro-Americans, Latin Americans, and African-Americans. (See video.)

These tours showcased jazz as the first global music. Jazz emerged as an African-American artistic form but its practices can be adapted and reshaped to any musician’s subjectivity. Consider the musical journey of popular Argentinian saxophonist, Gato Barbieri, in the 1960s. Listening to John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Barbieri experienced a series of musical revelations and simply wanted "to be a black jazz musician." After a few years, he felt the need to express his own cultural heritage within his own sound (on the saxophone) and compositions, in part to bring into jazz the story of another “part of the world where there is great oppression.” He found an answer first in Argentine folk rhythms and later by hanging out with his country's best tango musicians. He heard in their music something similar to jazz, musicians "telling their stories [with] the same power, feeling, and spontaneity." Then and now, the individual jazz musician remains the primary method by which jazz travels around the world and back.