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 Tuesday, 01 December 2015
Through The Lens of Jazz Diplomacy: Celebrating the Jazz Ambassador Tours PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Monday, 31 March 2008

Dave Brubeck with local musicians in India, 1958.Photo courtesy of the Brubeck Collection, Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library. Copyright Dave Brubeck

[Dakar, 1966]. “When the time for our concert comes, it is a wonderful success. We get the usual diplomatic applause from the diplomatic corps down front, but the cats in the bleachers really dig it. You can see them rocking back there while we play. When we finish, they shout approval and dash for backstage where they hug and embrace us, some of them with tears in their eyes. It is acceptance at the highest level, and it gives us a once-in-a-lifetime feeling of having truly broken through to our brothers.” – Duke Ellington, Music is My Mistress. 

In the midst of the Cold War, facing serious political challenges in domestic and foreign policy, the Eisenhower Administration experimented with a new approach to international diplomacy – jazz music. In 1956, the State Department initiated these cultural outreach efforts by sending Dizzy Gillespie to the Middle East, South Asia, and Southern Europe to share an art form that in many ways symbolized democracy and the free spirit of America. Jazz proved to be an international language of freedom and collaboration, as repeatedly demonstrated through subsequent government tours by icons such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and others. From ordinary citizens to heads of state, they touched people in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, the Soviet Union, and South America, including many living where freedom and democracy were dreams, not realities. In the process, some of their interactions with citizens abroad helped fuel the movement for expanded civil rights back home in the U.S. 

This spring, Dave Brubeck marks the 50th anniversary of his first tour as a Jazz Ambassador, to be celebrated when the annual Brubeck Festival at the University of the Pacific (March 31-April 5) partners with George Washington University, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress, Meridian International Center and the National Endowment for the Arts for a second festival week (April 8-13) in Washington, DC. Concurrently, Meridian International Center has organized a seminal photographic exhibition, Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World, opening in Washington, DC on April 3rd in Meridian’s Cafritz Galleries. In addition to this photographic exhibition chronicling the State Department’s jazz tours from the 1950s through the 1970s, Meridian will host two panel discussions on April 11th (The Future of Jazz as a Tool of Cultural Diplomacy and Take Two: A Reflection on the 1958 Tour), including commentary by Dave Brubeck and a performance by the Dave Brubeck Institute Quintet and the Jagodzinski Trio from Poland. The pianist’s compositions will be featured, with the jazz legend performing a couple of tunes himself.  

Meridian International Center is devoted to promoting international understanding through the exchange of people, ideas, and the arts. This not-for-profit organization brings the world together based on our common humanity and fosters an atmosphere of shared community and greater multi-national and cultural awareness. Art exhibitions, educational initiatives, and community outreach programs enlighten, inform, and inspire people to take an interest in the world around them. Meridian’s Vice President for the Arts, Dr. Curtis Sandberg, serves as the exhibit’s curator, together with Professor Penny M. Von Eschen, a noted expert in the history of jazz diplomacy, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, and author of Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War.  

Planning the Exhibition

The confluence of two events stimulated Meridian’s interest in organizing Jam Session. Dr. Sandberg, aware of his organization’s interest in the Jazz Ambassadors, read an article in the National Endowment for the Arts newsletter by Dana Gioia, NEA Chairman, in which Dave Brubeck discussed his role as a U.S. cultural emissary. In this publication, Sandberg noted an accompanying photograph of the musician’s 1958 tour from the University of the Pacific’s Brubeck Archives. One phone call later, and with enthusiastic support from that collection to work with Meridian, he also learned of Professor Von Eschen’s book about the jazz tours. Sandberg immediately contacted the author who was eager to do something with the travel photos. Soon Meridian was contacting other collections, including the Louis Armstrong House Museum and the Archives Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, culling photos, and, with Terry Harvey, Meridian’s Director of Exhibitions, planning the “look” of the show.

With a degree in archeology, digging through archival material was not exactly a new activity for Sandberg, but he admits to having little formal background in jazz. “I always thought it was something to enjoy and appreciate . . . [but] when we started the project I had no idea how many people out there love this music,” he said in a recent interview. “People we have known for years have great jazz stories or experiences with this world we would have otherwise not known. As a result of our research, even my own son (age 4) has become interested . . .” In the last few months, however, Sandberg notes that he has had “a crash course in jazz diplomacy,” with much of this education coming from hours spent searching for the images to include in the exhibit and working with Professor Von Eschen.

Sandberg, Von Eschen, and Harvey established several criteria for including images in the show: photos needed to depict informal interactions between musicians and citizens of host countries – preferably in characteristic settings that would tell museum visitors they are viewing interactions in specific locales. “These artists weren’t interested in encountering only the elites of the places they visited. They wanted to meet the people and jam with local musicians,” notes Sandberg. “Still, they knew that contacts with dignitaries were a key part of their job and that this was crucial to the State Department. Consequently, we were careful to include photos of this nature. Since jazz fans will come to see this exhibit, we also included concert photos.” Finally, it was important to show viewers “examples of the Jazz Ambassadors as they traveled.”  

“As we learned more about the actual trips, we tried to find photos that helped bolster the stories,” explains Sandberg. “In other cases, we located amazing images and tried to learn more about their background.” One source was A.J. Julian, a retired Concord Records executive who Sandberg found through contacts at the Berklee College of Music. “As Director of the Woody Herman Society, A.J. has maintained contacts with past Herman band members and, in this case, for years has been in possession of photographs from the 1966 Africa tour. He lent us pictures of Woody and the Herd playing for people in Elisabethville, Congo, after a civil disturbance. In one instance, looking over the drummer’s shoulder past Woody and his clarinet, you can see barricades and a police line. Sometimes the jazz musicians were sent into trouble!” 

Dizzy Gillespie in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, 1956. Photo courtesy of the Marshall Stearns Collection, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University.
“Certain photos spoke to us,” explains Sandberg. “There is one of Duke Ellington signing an autograph for a little boy in Damascus, Syria – and the child is simply thrilled to meet this famous American. The picture breathes the humanity of the jazz tours. It shows what the musicians could do when meeting people around the world . . . and tells a great story.” Sandberg describes a photo of Benny Goodman in Japan, playing in front of a painted backdrop of Mt. Fuji. “It is a really fun 1950s-style Japanese motif and we liked it so much that it just had to be included in the show.” Another image depicts “Duke Ellington bending down to look at a traditional Indian musical ensemble – totally captivated by what they are doing with tablas and sitars. Here is a man who will later write Far East Suite, absorbing Eastern harmonies and clearly impressed by them.” Another favorite photograph shows Dizzy Gillespie outside a hotel in Pakistan in 1956, playing for a cobra. “In his autobiography, Dizzy describes sitting on the lawn with Melba Liston and playing the horn for this reptile. Later he invited the snake charmer into his hotel for a jam session.” 

Documents as well as photos turned up during exhibit planning that highlighted the importance of these tours to the American musicians and their commitment to the government’s program. Some artists went to ill-fated efforts to participate. “Velma Middleton [touring Africa with Louis Armstrong in 1960-1961] went against her doctor’s orders and died in Sierra Leone,” Sandberg discovered. “We found letters to Louis Armstrong from people in Ghana who had met the All Stars earlier in the tour, and now sent condolences on her death. She made the ultimate sacrifice for this initiative.”

Sandberg notes that assistance in creating the 100-image exhibition, the catalog, and education materials came from many sources. “Everyone was extremely giving of their time and knowledge. Quincy Jones, who was with Dizzy on the first-ever State Department tour in 1956, wrote a heartfelt introductory statement for our catalogue. Jazz scholars and musicians recognize the role of this music in befriending others around the world and are proud of it.” Music Sales Group in New York agreed to produce a 16-track CD containing songs by eight of the Jazz Ambassadors that may have been performed during their tours. Sandberg lauds Music Sales’ effort, noting that “this in-kind donation serves as a wonderful addition to our exhibit.”

Bringing the World Together: The Impact of Jazz Diplomacy

From 1956 to1978, many of the greatest names in American jazz were sent abroad as cultural ambassadors. Curtis Sandberg calculates that through the Jazz Ambassadors, millions were impacted. For every Dizzy Gillespie or Clark Terry, “one should also acknowledge the contribution of committed band members – most of whom served as ambassadors in their own right.” Mass media also helped. “Dizzy and his orchestra performed on local radio in Argentina in 1956, and twenty years later Clark Terry appeared on TV stations around Pakistan.” From the 1950s onward, technology brought jazz to the far corners of the world, and along with it came the message that democracy was an attainable goal and American jazz musicians put a human face on that ideal.

Sandberg recounts some of the stories of jazz diplomacy. “A U.S. diplomat in Baghdad wrote about people sitting in cafes around the Iraqi capital [in 1963] to watch Duke Ellington on live television as he performed in the city’s concert hall. Another way the Jazz Ambassadors reached people was to seek out local musicians. Goodman’s band members, for example, jammed in local clubs – and Benny even played with the King of Thailand. The musical envoys took their role very seriously – doing official ‘meet and greet’ events for the government but also getting around on their own. Local people learned about them and about the great humanity of jazz music. [The Jazz Ambassadors] gave a human face to America, with people abroad meeting African-Americans, sometimes for the first time, and also experiencing multi-ethnic bands – or American women such as the great Melba Liston who toured with Dizzy’s big band. All of this gave a larger picture of America than what Cold War rhetoric might have otherwise revealed.”

Seemingly small gestures further brought the spirit of freedom to the world. Sandberg notes stories of Dizzy Gillespie handing out free tickets to children who could not otherwise get into a concert. Also, “Duke Ellington refused to play until local musicians who could not afford tickets were allowed into concert halls gratis. Gestures like this touched people and underscored the democracy of jazz.”

Growth of Jazz through State Department Tours

Benny Goodman (left) met Soviet Premier Khrushchev during his 1962 tour of the USSR. Photo courtesy of the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Benny Goodman Papers, Yale University. Photographed by United Press International.
As the Jazz Ambassadors program fostered social and cultural connections internationally, the opportunities to tour the world also influenced the growth of American jazz. Curtis Sandberg recounts how their travels impacted some of this music’s exemplary practitioners. “Randy Weston is great example,” he reports. “He made a 1967 tour of Africa. We have photos of this voyage in the exhibit and in one case Weston stands with a curator in a Gabonese museum examining a local musical instrument. In others pictures not included in the exhibit, Randy listens to African musicians and one can see his fascination with this music. Duke Ellington wrote Far East Suite after his far-reaching 1963 tour and Dave Brubeck composed a song for the Polish people after his 1958 swing through Poland and played this at a concert in Poznan. The audience was extremely moved and responded with thunderous applause. Dave was also inspired to write The Golden Horn [included in Jazz Impressions of Eurasia], and built this composition around the Turkish words for ‘thank you very much.’ On the same tour, he played with Indian musicians, and this, too, influenced his music.” Later, Brubeck commented that hearing the off-beat rhythms and timing in the local music he heard on the tour directly influenced the structure of the compositions on his best-selling Time Out;  his “Blue Rondo ŕ la Turk” on that album was based on the rhythm of a Turkish ‘zeybek,’ a dance he observed in his travels in Turkey. Sanberg also notes that following Clark Terry’s 1978 tour that ended in Pakistan, the great trumpeter was inspired to fly “to Bombay for a jazz festival where he led a band with musicians representing ten countries.”

Sandberg views the emerging internationalization of jazz as a natural product of the State Department’s (USIS/USIA) jazz program which ended in 1978. For the musicians, the tours offered rare opportunities not only to travel but also to perform with peers from other traditions. In the case of larger orchestras, the program had a secondary benefit of permitting some band leaders to keep their groups together at a time when support of large ensembles was dwindling. “When else could you organize the big band of your dreams in the 1950s and afterward unless the U.S. Government helped to pay for it?” asks Sandberg. “Duke Ellington toured for the government until just before his death, and to some extent his band benefitted through participation in these programs.”

Taking Jazz Abroad in the 21st Century

The State Department tours were not the only way international audiences were exposed to American music. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the nation’s oldest active orchestra, has conducted tours for years, including a famed European voyage by Toscaninni in 1930, a trip to China in the last decade, and a recent visit to North Korea. And while the original Jazz Ambassadors program faded in the late 1970s, it continued through other initiatives into the 1990s and, in 2006, was revived with the Rhythm Road program, administered through a partnership between the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Similar to the original project, Rhythm Road - American Music Abroad takes “jazz and urban music ensembles” to Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. Additionally, Rhythm Road tours include formal master classes, workshops and jam sessions as well as concerts and public broadcast, and typically engage ensembles that are of less renown than the bands of Ellington, Gillespie and Brubeck. Two groups in 2008 will visit 54 countries, including recently completed tours of Africa (The Ryan Cohen Quartet) and the Middle East (Exegisis Quartet).  

Curtis Sandberg notes that, “The first jazz tours were aided by money from the President’s Cultural Fund, support from the Secretary of State, and the involvement of the uppermost officials of the government. It was expensive to send Dizzy’s band abroad in 1956, and many lawmakers were unhappy with the costs. While working at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, I came across a wonderful editorial from a Winston-Salem, North Carolina newspaper entitled ‘Pricing the Intangible.’ It suggested that America’s cultural diplomacy initiatives should involve the best examples of whatever art form we were sending overseas – and that one could not and should not put a price on the value of making friends.”

Other examples of contemporary jazz diplomacy include multi-instrumentalist and composer Darryl John Kennedy, who is an independent cultural ambassador. Funding his own international tours, Kennedy brings his music and discussions of cultural exchange to concert stages, embassies, schools and organizations worldwide, selling his motto, “Better cultural relations make better foreign policy.” Says Sandberg, “He finds local jazz musicians and, because of the intensely improvisational nature of this musical genre, a bonding occurs among them. In Cairo recently, he played with local musicians for an enthusiastic Egyptian audience. So it [jazz diplomacy] goes on.” And the timing is certainly right for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s tours and the independent cultural ambassadors. Notes Darryl John Kennedy, “Our world is becoming more dangerous every day. Projecting a more favorable American face to the world is vital at this time.”

Jam Session: Through the Lens of Jazz Diplomacy

Given the evolution of modern technology, bringing images and recordings into every household and increasing access of millions worldwide to American culture, how will the upcoming exhibition and subsequent discussion of the Jazz Ambassadors program add to our understanding of this era? And will expanding an appreciation for this cultural exchange affect global relationships today? Curtis Sandberg feels that the response to Jam Session will be positive. Among those already aware of the project, “the uniform response has been – ‘that is so cool!’ or ‘I never knew about this before.’ We hope the show will teach young people that cultural exchange is extremely important to their future. For the older generation, we imagine the show will have a nostalgic quality. These are great photos and, when linked to the catalogue and the CD, will make people think. They will look at the exhibit and say, ‘This was a wonderful way to reach out to people abroad – and more of this should be happening now.’ The show can serve as a reminder of this great initiative that told the story of America by sharing some of our finest qualities internationally.”

Meridian intends to take the show on the road once the three-month exhibit ends in Washington, DC. “We are in the process of contacting museums,” says Sandberg, “and envision twelve to fifteen venues nationwide – starting with jazz places like New Orleans, New York, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, but also smaller communities –  all exhibited at museums and universities.” Like Meridian’s other shows, Sandberg emphasizes that “Jam Session is not just wallpaper. Ultimately, we create exhibitions that are all-encompassing and informative. There will be a teachers’ guide for children and didactic materials on our website. It can be used anywhere. Our shows are focal points for community activities through connections with libraries, schools, local governments, and other partners. Hopefully this exhibition, as it travels the U.S., will provide a reflective setting where people can consider the impact of the jazz tours and cultural diplomacy in general. Museums, after all, are great places for quiet contemplation.”

If Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World impacts viewers as much as it has affected Sandberg and his colleagues, then the notion of jazz as a tool of American diplomacy and world cooperation has a promising future. “One night, very late, there was a wonderful documentary on the life of Billy Strayhorn on PBS,” says the curator, “and instead of going to sleep before facing a long day at work, I stayed up until nearly 2:00 am to watch. Had we not done this exhibit, I would not have been as motivated to delve into specifics about individual musicians or arrangers. The project was a life-changing experience. Now our Arts Office boasts fans who appreciate in subtle, but profound terms, what good jazz music has done for this country.”

In Washington, DC, Jam Session will be on view from April 4 through July 13 in the Meridian International Center’s Cafritz Galleries (1624 Crescent Place NW). Exhibit hours are from Wednesday-Sunday from 2:00 – 5:00 p.m.

On April 11th, two panel discussions will be held at the Center (1630 Crescent Place NW) – The Future of Jazz as a Tool of Cultural Diplomacy at 3:00 p.m. and Take Two: A Reflection on the 1958 Tour at 4:45 p.m. Dave Brubeck will be on hand to offer recollections and insights about his 1958 tour. From 7:30 – 9:30 the acclaimed Polish jazz group, the Jagodzinski Trio, and the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet from the University of the Pacific, will play Brubeck compositions, with Dave Brubeck himself joining in the performance. For reservations and information, call (202) 939-5543 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it ; visit Meridian at

“I still believe that our best weapon for winning the hearts and minds of people who are different from us, is one that does not threaten or intimidate, but reaches out with a gift of the best of our culture and receives the best of other cultures in exchange. It can only enrich all who are engaged in the activity and enlighten our mutual understanding of the world we share.”

--Dave Brubeck on the 50th Anniversary of his Cultural Ambassadors Tour 

JazzINK and Jazz Police thank Curtis Sandberg for his time and efforts in providing information and insights regarding the Jazz Ambassadors and the Jam Session exhibition. This article is simultaneously published on the JazzINK website at 

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