If the State Department’s Cold War jazz diplomacy program of international tours, which kicked off in 1956 with Dizzy Gillespie‘s big band and continued on into the 1970s, was named for a Robert Ludlum international thriller, it might be called The Paradox Enigma. The fundamental paradox of Jazz Ambassadors, as the U.S. jazz diplomacy program is more generally known, was the notion of using jazz, i.e., Black music—though it wasn’t overtly portrayed as such, of course, it was presented as American music—to sell America and American “democracy” to the world, while Jim Crow was alive and well back home, sitting with his feet up on the front porch. Cold Warrior John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State from 1953-59, is apparently miscredited with the quote, “The United States of America does not have friends; it has interests,” but it’s quite apt in the context of Jazz Ambassadors.
Jazz musicians touring the globe in Black bands, in White bands and sometimes in integrated bands, were one of the government’s more ingenious cultural policy ploys in the interest of out-musicking the Russians, who were having a field day playing up America’s glaring racial inequality. It was easy enough for the U.S. to defeat Godless Communism in the jazz arena; mainstream jazz enjoyed a certain level of global adoration in the ’50s, but the Russians, tripping over their tone-deaf Stalinist ideology, had effectively outlawed jazz, driving it into a thriving Soviet underground.
As a supplement to Ka-ching‘s Jazz Ambassadors perspective, this section of the site will look at related jazz/policy issues of the period, focusing mainly on civil rights and the avant-garde—rich terrain, indeed, whose major players usually manage to have both friends and interests. This section will also occasionally range beyond the Cold War era to consider other jazz diplomacy issues that transcend the federal sphere.