Haunted by the nightmare of a nuclear holocaust, cultural diplomacy was never more effective than during the Cold War when a bipolar ideological rivalry opposed the United States and the Soviet Union. Both superpowers encouraged cultural exchanges as an opportunity to ease tensions whilst shrewdly hoping to improve their image abroad.
In this context of mutual distrust, half a century ago, the US representative from Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell Jr had an idea to counter Soviet propaganda. In Powell’s view sending symphony orchestras or ballet companies to compete with the Bolshoi was counter-productive. Confident that his country could export an artform which Soviets couldn’t match, he suggested the State Department should send out jazz bands instead.
Given that most jazz bands were racially mixed in an age when America’s image abroad was tarnished by segregation laws in the South, the State Department immediately grasped the powerful symbolism of what Powell called : Real Americana.
‘Jazz Ambassador Tours’, as they were called, lasted weeks, sometimes months, and soon made an impact, particularly in the middle east, attracting huge, enthusiastic crowds wherever they went. Dizzy Gillespie, could be seen in Iran mingling with the Shah’s inner circle or charming a snake with his trumpet in neighbouring Pakistan. While Duke Ellington smoked a hookah at Ctesiphon in Iraq, Louis Armstrong would be marching the saints up Gaza’s Pyramids under the close scrutiny of the Sphinx as well as that of his jealous wife Lucille.
A convert Baha’i (*), Gillespie, made the first State Department tour in march 1956, but the ride was bumpy from the start. An outspoken campaigner for world peace, disarmament and black civil rights, he refused to attend State Department briefings, saying he “wasn’t going to apologise for the racist policies of America”, and adding (with reference to the US’s history of slavery), “I’ve got three hundred years of briefing”.
Similarily Louis Armstrong famously pulled out from a planned tour of the Soviet Union in protest at President Eisenhower’s refusal to ensure the enrollment of nine black youngsters at a Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Less confrontational, Duke Ellington relished his role as goodwill ambassador, as late as 1957, but expressed profound reservations as to America’s image abroad. For Ellington, Americans needed a “new sound”. One of harmony, brotherly love, and common respect for the dignity and freedom of men. When only six years later, President John F. Kennedy endorsed the civil rights movement by publically denouncing segregation, this dramatic shift made Ellington optimistic about the prospects for American liberalism and convinced him to embark on his first ambassadorial trip in 1963.
Like his predecessors Ellington perceived these jazz tours as a global platform from which to promote black culture whilst denouncing racial injustice back home, but he was also deeply influenced by the sounds of the lands he visited.
Over the next two-and-a-half months his diplomatic caravan criss-crossed the region, bringing jazz and goodwill to countries which even then were torn by war and revolutionary change. They played in Jordan, Lebanon, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
In Kabul 5,000 people made their way to the Ghazi stadium built for the occasion. Ellington opened with Caravan, followed by Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. He was puzzled when, halfway through the concert, the audience appeared to leave. It was the hour of prayer, but the seats soon filled up again followed by Afghan royals who greeted the band after the concert. In those care free days of a western friendly Kabul few could have imagined that decades later the Taliban would use the stadium for public executions. In 1973, Ellington fondly recalled riding round all night long after the concert, listening to Afghan music in cafes. They have their own thing going on there, and it’s good, he told the famed British TV host Michael Parkinson.
The band reached Baghdad just in time for a military coup, during which jets shot up the presidential palace. Later, upon safe arrival in Beirut, the press eagerly sought Ellington’s reaction to the experience. Baghdad ? he said, in a much-quoted reply. It was swinging ! .
They also performed in India and Pakistan, hardly suspecting that two years later both countries would be at war.
In Iran, just five months after massive protests against the arrest of a then-obscure cleric known as Ayatollah Khomeini, the band played to thousands in a packed stadium in Abadan. Ellington’s A-Train also stopped in Isfahan. The Duke recalled the city as being a place where everything is poetry. They meet you at the airport with poetry and you go away with poetry. This visit inspired a beautiful, poetic piece entrusted to the melodic saxophone of Johnny Hodges and titled Isfahan. It became one of nine compositions of The Far East Suite, recorded just before Christmas 1966 as a recollection of the sounds, smells and impressions brought back by the Duke and his band.
The itinerary was also to include Egypt and Greece but concerts were postponed upon arrival in Turkey with the tragic news of President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22nd, 1963.
More than 50 years since the Duke toured the middle east, the State Department continues to have a program of jazz diplomacy called Rythm Road in partnership with The Jazz at Lincoln Center. It provides an opportunity for musicians to reach out to areas in the world unfamiliar with American society and culture.
Jazz Ambassador tours’ were an effective diplomatic tool during the Cold War. Can it once again play a constructive role in today’s multipolar world, particularly in a deeply wounded Middle East torn between violence and risks of nuclear proliferation? If so then blowing the A-Train whistle is long due.
(*) monotheistic faith, founded by Bahá’u’lláh in 19th-century Persia.
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