June 29, 2008


When Ambassadors Had Rhythm (FRED KAPLAN, 6/29/08, NY Times)

HALF a century ago, when America was having problems with its image during the cold war, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the United States representative from Harlem, had an idea. Stop sending symphony orchestras and ballet companies on international tours, he told the State Department. Let the world experience what he called “real Americana”: send out jazz bands instead.

A photography exhibition of those concert tours, titled “Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World,” is on display at the Meridian International Center in Washington through July 13 and then moves to the Community Council for the Arts in Kinston, N.C. There are nearly 100 photos in the show, many excavated from obscure files in dozens of libraries, then digitally retouched and enlarged by James Hershorn, an archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. There’s Dizzy Gillespie in 1956, charming a snake with his trumpet in Karachi, Pakistan. Louis Armstrong in ’61, surrounded by laughing children outside a hospital in Cairo. Benny Goodman in ’62, blowing his clarinet in Red Square. Duke Ellington in ’63, smoking a hookah at Ctesiphon in Iraq.

The idea behind the State Department tours was to counter Soviet propaganda portraying the United States as culturally barbaric. Powell’s insight was that competing with the Bolshoi would be futile and in any case unimaginative. Better to show off a homegrown art form that the Soviets couldn’t match — and that was livelier besides. Many jazz bands were also racially mixed, a potent symbol in the mid to late ’50s, when segregation in the South was tarnishing the American image.

Jazz was the country’s “Secret Sonic Weapon” (as a 1955 headline in The New York Times put it) in another sense as well. The novelist Ralph Ellison called jazz an artistic counterpart to the American political system. The soloist can play anything he wants as long as he stays within the tempo and the chord changes — just as, in a democracy, the individual can say or do whatever he wants as long as he obeys the law.

As our jazz correspondent, Brother Dryfoos, pointed out the other day, most free form jazz is crap because it's an exercise in freedom without any structure, rendering it meaningless.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 29, 2008 9:45 AM

I couldn't agree more.

Posted by: Bartman at June 29, 2008 4:29 PM

The last sentence applies to most of the "fine arts" celbrated by the intellectualistas.

Posted by: Mikey at June 29, 2008 6:12 PM

I must, of course, stress the word "most." Many years ago I went to hear free jazz pioneer pianist Cecil Taylor. I had never cared what I'd heard of him on records, and frankly, went to the concert because he was a "great" and I felt I should take advantage of the chance.

Well, he started off banging on the piano (the keys and the strings inside), chanting, reciting verse, dancing around and engaging in all kinds of noise making. There was no tune, no structure and no breaks. After 15 minutes, I was ready to walk out. I didn't, though, and an hour and 15 minutes later he finally stopped...and I, and everyone else in the place, lept up in applause. Somewhere between that 15 minute mark and about 25 minutes, I "got it"...I stopped listening for familiar sign posts (like a beat or a repeated chord or scale pattern) and became emotionally and intelluctually engaged in the sound. Just fantastic.

I've had similar experience with Pharoah Sanders, but Ornette Coleman has left me cold on a few occasions. Hence, the "most."

As for the State Department Tours, the Gillespie big band tours of the mid-50's (with James Moody and other), Armstorng's tours, Ellington's to the near east and Benny Carter's various tours all stand out musically and diplomatically due to the warm, generous nature of the band leaders.

Benny Goodman wasn't the warmest guy in the world, but the Goodman tour to Moscow produced some great music (a studio version of which can be heard on an LP called "Mission to Moscow" with Phil Woods playing Goodman's parts)

These government-sponsored visits continued for as long as the Cold War persisted...and Gillespie's late '70's/early 80's visit to Havana gave Arturo Sandoval a chance to meet his hero and (if the HBO biopic can be believed) help inspire Sandoval to defect.

Posted by: Foos at June 29, 2008 7:06 PM
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