June 9, 2005


The Cool War: a review of Satchmo Blows Up The World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War by Penny M. Von Eschen (Brian Morton, The Nation)

On August 1, 1956, the 84th Congress extended the terms of the President's Emergency Fund and ratified a pet project of the Eisenhower regime, the unrevealingly named Special International Program. A cold war dateline almost inevitably lends the words a sinister and clandestine aura. One can imagine the young CIA zealots who people Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost huddled in Berlin clubs or the crush bar at the opera, nursing steins of beer or glasses of sekt and making sophomoric puns about "SIP." The reality was both more innocent and odder, and clubs and concert halls were the appropriate setting.

In Satchmo Blows Up the World, Penny Von Eschen, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, describes a "can-do" bipartisan foreign policy culture in which postwar "policymakers exhibited extraordinary confidence in America's ability to shape the world in its image with whatever tools it had, be they covert operations, carpet bombing, or jazz musicians." The touch of bathos only underlines the ambiguity of American sponsorship of jazz as a propaganda instrument. Between 1956 and the late 1970s, the State Department dispatched jazz musicians to an array of Third World and Soviet bloc countries, including East Germany, Iraq and the Congo, visits that seemed to coincide with unnerving predictability with outbreaks of unrest or civil wars. The Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington tours of 1958 and 1963, respectively, found themselves in the middle of Iraqi coups, while saxophonist Phil Woods, on a pioneering tour with the Dizzy Gillespie band, arrived in Abadan, Iran, to the smell of crude oil and the sound of gunfire over the border in what had once been a troubled corner of the British Empire.

Jazz is an art of improvisation. Even so, it's surprising to learn just how ad hoc the State Department packages apparently were. Jazz tours to the Balkans and Middle East--it's worth remembering that Ellington's Far East Suite was really a "Near to Middle East Suite," as the peerless Johnny Hodges solo on "Isfahan" bears out--were part of a Truman Doctrine commitment to take over anti-Communist activities from the British and to support a cordon sanitaire, or "perimeter defense," against Communist encroachment on a line from Turkey to Pakistan. But while the itineraries were carefully planned--and the whiff of crude detected by Woods nicely suggests the considerations involved--the exact propaganda content was not.

In her introductory chapter, "Ike Gets Dizzy," Von Eschen points to the irony of the Southerner Dwight Eisenhower, probably the last overt segregationist to occupy the White House, putting his weight behind a man whose family was driven from Cheraw, South Carolina, to Philadelphia by poverty and fear of the lynch mob.

What the...? Though born in Texas, Ike was raised from infancy in Kansas, which isn't generally considered the South, and though not a crusader for desegregation was demonstrably not pro-segregation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 9, 2005 7:26 PM


What else would you expect from The Nation?

Posted by: capt mike at June 9, 2005 7:48 PM

The "last overt segregationist to occupy the White House" was ole "first tier" Woodrow Wilson.

Posted by: John Thacker at June 9, 2005 8:44 PM

Who was that white man president who sent the troops to Little Rock if it wasn't Ike? The Nation shows us still again just how stupid the LLL really are.

Posted by: dick at June 9, 2005 10:49 PM

Note the 'overt', I'm sure the Nation thinks that every Republican president since Eisenhower was a covert segregationist.

Posted by: carter at June 10, 2005 12:31 AM

State Department Jazz Goodwill tours have had the nice side benefit of creating some great music and leading to discovery of new talent. I recall an album called "Mission to Moscow" recorded in studio by the Benny Goodman big band after a State Dept. tour of the Soviet Union; for some reason, Benny isn't on the album and Phil Woods plays the clarinet parts. Also, I believe that Dizzy was on a State Dept. visit to Cuba when he first met Arturo Sandoval.

Posted by: Foos at June 10, 2005 10:23 AM

The Nation probably thinks LBJ is a covert segregationist.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at June 10, 2005 11:27 AM

They may have made the same error I did years ago. Ike was raised in Abilene, Kansas. Abilene is usually associated with Texas, but I corrected myself at age 19. They are laggards.

Posted by: obc at June 10, 2005 1:02 PM