Tag Archive for CIA

Jazz Counter-Diplomacy: Wynton Marsalis Evades Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

It is hardly a secret that the U.S., with the cooperation of mainstream American media, has been seeking to effectively overthrow the Venezuelan government at least since the late Marxist anti-imperialist Hugo Chávez (democratically) rose to power in 1999. Who can forget Chávez’s 2006 speech at the U.N. General Assembly when he called Bush II “the devil” who thinks he is “the owner of the world.” Pretty much nailed that one, it must be said, no?

Well, things are no different now that Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, is the president of the oil-rich but economically impaired, in a year of plummeting oil prices, Bolivarian Republic. As Eva Golinger, author of The Chavez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela, wrote in Counterpunch in February, 2015, “There is a coup underway in Venezuela. The pieces are all falling into place like a bad CIA movie.” She traces the U.S. media’s toeing of the State Department line (“The New York Times has a shameful history when it comes to Venezuela”) and goes on to note, 

This year President Obama approved a special State Department fund of $5 million to support anti-government groups in Venezuela. Additionally, the congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy is financing Venezuelan opposition groups with over $1.2 million and aiding efforts to undermine Maduro’s government. There is little doubt that millions more for regime change in Venezuela are being funneled through other channels that are not subject to public scrutiny.

Things heated up further in March, 2015, when, as noted in Al Jazeera America,

U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order last week saying the Latin American nation poses an “extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States. He imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan military and intelligence officials, accusing them of human rights violations, and extended the sanctions to members of their families. The individuals are barred from doing business with American citizens, traveling to the United States and could have their assets in the U.S. seized.

An extraordinary threat to national security, eh? Is Venezuela earmarking $5 million to support Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant‘s re-election bid for the Seattle City Council? Perhaps that explains Wynton Marsalis’ last-minute scratch of Caracas from Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 12-city South American tour, as reported by the AP on 3-12-15, in a widely distributed article whose gushing lede reads, “American jazz legend [italics added] Wynton Marsalis has canceled concerts in Venezuela at a time of rising tensions between the two nations.”

The AP story continues:

The New York-based trumpeter and composer was scheduled to perform his Swing Symphony on Friday alongside the Simon Bolivar Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, the first of three concerts planned in Caracas.

Marsalis and other musicians from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra also were supposed to lead a series of workshops with Venezuela’s world-famous El Sistema network of youth ensembles. Both that organization and the orchestra are supported by Venezuela’s socialist government.

Further on, Greg Scholl, executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, is quoted to puzzling effect:

Jazz “is a powerful tool to bring people across cultures and geographies together,” he said in an interview from New York. “But it’s important that it’s performed in conditions when the music can be heard. Intentionally or otherwise, if our performances there and the work that we were doing with them there was to become politicized those conditions no longer exist. And that could be harmful to both of our institutions.”

Ignoring the routine jazzocratic froth of “bringing people together,” exactly what “conditions” would cause the music not to be heard? One can only hope Marsalis will address the issue on his blog and clear the diplomatic fog. Meanwhile, the astute Norman Lebrecht of the classical music blog Slipped Disc interprets the AP story thus:

This may be a precedent.

Jazz king Wynton Marsalis has pulled his musicians out of this weekend’s concerts with the Simon Bolivar orchestra in Caracas, citing political differences.

[. . .]

Last week, Venezuelan president Maduro imposed new visa restraints on US citizens. Although Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra members were provided with visas, they decided that worsening political and economic conditions in Caracas were not conducive to music.

Or perhaps, as John Halle, director of studies in music theory and practice at Bard College Conservatory, put it on Facebook when he shared the Lebrecht post: “Joining a long history of jazz musicians carrying water for the State Department.” Or getting a bit part in a bad CIA movie.

 

 

Smooth-Jazz Diplomacy: Kenny G Invades Hong Kong

Kenny G Hong KongWho could have predicted Kenny G’s Twitter intervention of 10-22-14 in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution? Prior to this revolution, who in the U.S. even knew, outside of perhaps his fans, that Mr. G’s 1989 hit “Going Home” is the official closing-time anthem of China? Mr. G, who is discussed in Ka-ching in reference to the meaning of “jazz” and the defining characteristics of a jazz musician, has struck, wittingly or not, an astounding political blow for smooth jazz—a genre not known for its left-wing activism. All he had to do was show up at a pro-democracy demonstration—he has been touring China of late—and post a picture of the moment to Twitter, as he stands in front of a banner that says in part, “Democracy of Hong Kong by Hong Kong,” accompanied by the speciously neutral tweet, “In Hong Kong at the sight of the demonstration. I wish everyone a peaceful and positive conclusion to this situation.”

Yes, he even got “site” wrong, in typical social-media fashion. But note that he wants a positive conclusion to the situation, which clearly speaks to the success of the Umbrella Movement. China picked up on this immediately, of course, and a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said:

We hope that foreign governments and individuals speak and act cautiously and not support the Occupy Central and other illegal activities in any form. . . .  I don’t have a specific grasp of the situation regarding the American citizen you raise who is in Hong Kong participating in the illegal Occupy Central, [but it is requested that all foreign governments and individuals refrain from] using any methods to support Occupy Central and other illegal activities.

Mr. G’s later Facebook/Twitter recantation . . .

I was not trying to defy government orders with my last post. I was in Hong Kong as a stop on my way to perform at Mission Hills and happened to walk by the protest area as I was walking around Hong Kong as a tourist. Some fans took my picture and it’s unfair that I am being used by anyone to say that I am showing support for the demonstrators. I am not supporting the demonstrators as I don’t really know anything about the situation and my impromptu visit to the site was just part of an innocent walk around Hong Kong.

. . . rings painfully hollow, of course. An innocent walk? He’s been in China and Hong Kong for weeks and he doesn’t know anything about the situation? Kenny G as the Clueless American, even if he doesn’t know “sight” from “site”? That’s just as credible as claiming this is (smooth) jazz “black ops” diplomacy as it might be engineered by the State Department and/or the CIA, in an effort to further destabilize China’s hold on Hong Kong. In fact, the Voice of America, a bastion of American jazz diplomacy, ran with this story under the rousing headline, “Kenny G Vexes Beijing Brass with Visit to Hong Kong Protest”:

The pro-democracy group Global Solidarity HK shared the musician’s photo with its more than 3,600 followers on Twitter, adding the comment: “‘Going Home?’ Not without Civil Nomination.” Fans thanked the musician on the social media site and asked that he not let Hong Kong police use the song to disperse the crowds that have held constant rallies in the city’s streets for more than three weeks.

One can only hope that Kenny G’s recantation is as insincere as one suspects his music to be (having heard it only in malls, assuming the only soprano sax-fronted tracks one hears in malls belong to Mr. G). On the other hand, according to the New York Times, there are those who suspected, prior to the incident, that Mr. G may even be an agent of the Chinese government.

But an opposing theory that surfaced last week on Twitter said that Beijing might send Kenny G to Hong Kong to play “Going Home,” and that the protesters, who have occupied sections of Hong Kong’s business districts for weeks, would finally disperse. Harlem Lo, a protester and Kenny G listener, scoffed. “We didn’t leave when the police used tear gas on us,” he said. “Why would a single Kenny G tune shake our determination?”

One also can’t help noticing, in the context of Kenny G as jazz musician, the irony of a Hong Kong dissident named Harlem Lo. At any rate, if Kenny G’s political disavowal is legit, woe unto him. As the Times article notes, “ ‘Don’t worry Kenny,’ wrote a commenter from Hong Kong, Andy Yip. ‘The money from China will keep coming. The jobs from China will keep coming, because you’re exactly the type of people they like . . . People with no souls.’ ”

Addendum: Mr. G continues in his role of jazz-policy piñata. In a New York Times “The Stone” column of 8-19-15, Cornel West, venting about “black prophetic fire” and Obama’s lack of same, mentions Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and, of course, John Coltrane as musicians in that Black prophetic tradition and closes with, in reference to the failure of Obama, “we were looking for a Coltrane and we ended up getting a Kenny G. You can’t help but be profoundly disappointed.” West also says here that “the love ethic is at the very center of” this prophetic tradition, and “it has to have that central focus on loving the people.” One can’t help noticing yet another irony: according to his Wikipedia bio, “Kenny G’s career started with a job as a sideman for Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra in 1973 while 17 and still in high school.”

 

Jazzocratic Brubeck: Blue Rondo à la Quirk

Brubeck Jazz Impressions of Eurasia Cover

In 2008, Dave Brubeck was an inaugural recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy, “the most prestigious honor that the Department of State can bestow on American citizens who are making outstanding contributions to public diplomacy,” according to the State Department’s press release. The release points out that Brubeck has been “declared a ‘Living Legend’ by the Library of Congress,” and goes on to note that 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of his first State Department tour. “We recognize Dave Brubeck for offering a positive vision of hope, opportunity and freedom through a musical language that is truly American,” State trumpets in standard jazz diplomacy-speak.

The award was delivered by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who got a shout-out in Amiri Baraka’s Poet Laureate of New Jersey-terminating “Somebody Blew Up America”—”Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza”—and who was recently back in the news when she declined to speak at the 2014 Rutgers University commencement in the face of student outrage that such an invitation would be extended to one of the architects of the George W. Bush Administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq under patently false pretenses. Brubeck, who died in 2012, did not live to see this tiny bit of Condi comeuppance, but he was of course around in April 2010 when a Congressional resolution, H. Res. 1283, was introduced by New Hampshire Democrat Paul Hodes, “Honoring and thanking Dave Brubeck for his contributions to American music and cultural diplomacy.” However, it was not enacted, and Hodes, who also wears hats as a guitarist and an entertainment lawyer, lost to a Republican in the 2010 midterms, only to become a 2012 Obama appointee to the National Council for the Arts. Small jazz policy world!

But let’s get back to Brubeck and that first State Department tour, in 1958, whence the logo-crazy album cover seen here, which is the result of a promotional deal between Columbia Records and Pan American World Airways, according to Stephen A. Crist, an associate professor of music history at Emory University, whose research in State Department archives is the basis of the richly detailed “Jazz as Democracy? Dave Brubeck and Cold War Politics,” in The Journal of Musicology, Spring 2009 (linked via the restricted database JSTOR), which in turn is the basis of this post. The tour covered some serious ground: Poland, Turkey, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), East Pakistan (Bangladesh), West Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq (in 1958, Iran was a U.S. ally, of course, ruled by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was installed by the U.S. and the U.K. after the 1953 CIA-assisted coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh).

According to Crist, Brubeck’s motives for touring for the State Department were a mixture of patriotism, money, and publicity, though money is likely the least of these considerations—he could’ve made more money in other contexts. Brubeck apparently liked to see himself more as an ambassador of peace than a U.S. Cold War weapon, but he quite readily toed the jazzocracy line. Crist notes:

In both the 1950s and the 1980s [when he played a 1988 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow] it was Dave Brubeck’s settled conviction that performing jazz was profoundly symbolic: it was in essence a musical enactment of the principles of American democracy. Though this notion is somewhat problematic (Do all styles of jazz work this way, even big-band swing and free jazz? Are not some band leaders more “democratic” than others?), it possesses a certain commonsensical appeal. The idea was therefore espoused by many musicians and cultural critics in the 1950s, and it persists to the present day.

Does it ever! Brubeck made a further contribution to the propaganda of jazzocracy, this time on the domestic front, about a month after the tour when he collaborated with New York Times book reviewer Gilbert Millstein on a June 15, 1958 Times Magazine article, “The Beat Heard ‘Round the World.” This is not a reference to the Beat Generation, though Millstein’s chief claim to fame is his Times’ rave review of On the Road in 1957, a huge career-booster for jazz-maniac Jack Kerouac, though, ironically in this context, Kerouac had written in his journal in 1950, “You have to believe in life before you can accomplish anything. That is why dour, regular-houred, rational-souled State Department diplomats have done nothing for mankind. Why live if not for excellence?”

The somewhat less than excellent Times Magazine article was apparently written by Millstein based on an interview with Brubeck, but Brubeck’s is the sole byline. At any rate, in this piece Brubeck rolls out the jazzocratic red, white and blue carpet in support of American Empire . . .

It would be fatuous of me to pretend to correlate [jazz’s] importance with the billions of dollars we have spent to restore nations ravaged by war and in raising the living standards of underdeveloped countries, or the day-to-day spadework of statesmen and diplomats. . . . The United States assumes the most moral role of all internationally. A greater demand is placed on us for human decency than on any other country . . .

. . . and also in support of jazz as a Jim Crow smokescreen (in reference to his integrated band, which included Black bassist Eugene Wright), apparently reading directly from the “Segregation” chapter in the State Department’s classified playbook:

Jazz is color blind. When a German or a Pole or an Iraqi or an Indian sees American white men and colored in perfect creative accord, when he finds out that they travel together, eat together, live together and think pretty much alike, socially and musically, a lot of the bad taste of Little Rock is apt to be washed from his mouth.

Speaking of bad taste, in a reference to Louis Armstrong’s integrated bands, Brubeck says, rather uncomfortably, “Louis symbolizes even more than he understands. He is in life what you find more frequently in fiction—the uneducated American Negro who, through his genius, has overcome all possible obstacles and who is loved universally.” He also trots out the familiar jazzocratic improvisation theme, which privileges jazz above all other arts because “it is being created at the very moment it is played before an audience.” But he does have almost a good word for classical music—he studied with Darius Milhaud, after all. “The conductor of a symphony orchestra must, in my opinion, be a genius to transcend these [fixed] things and bring an element of creativity to what he is doing.”

The piece closes with an irony of epic proportions as Brubeck recounts a moment from his tour.

In Kabul, I was met by an ex-policeman from Berkeley, Calif., Al Riedel, who is helping organize Afghanistan’s forces. He pointed to this huge mountain around Kabul, and at its top a wall. “For 5,000 years,” he said, “people have been fighting over that wall—Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the Indians, the English, who knows who. If a small fraction of what they spent had gone into education instead of defense, that wall would have come down long ago. At best, defense is a temporary thing.”

So’s empire.

 

 

Ornette Coleman and Jackson Pollock: Black Music, White Light

Free Jazz CoverFree jazz, the genre, owes its name to Free Jazz, the Ornette Coleman record, recorded in December 1960, whose original cover featured a 1954 work by Jackson Pollock, White Light. Coleman’s music was entirely too far-out to be included in the State Department’s jazz itinerary, but Pollock (who died in 1956) and the Abstract Expressionists were one of the antidotes to Soviet Realism, as the CIA and its secret ally the Congress of Cultural Freedom (classic Orwellian Newspeak!) saw it.

Indeed, the CIA was so deeply involved in the promotion of American culture during the Cold War, it would take a book to sort it out—a book that was even reviewed, not unfavorably, by the CIA itself. Shows like the Museum of Modern Art’s “The New American Painting,” which toured Europe to great acclaim in 1958, were covertly funded by the CIA, which clearly shared cultural apparatchik Nelson Rockefeller’s view that AbEx was “free-enterprise painting.”

On a related vanguard-art note, more than a decade earlier the State Department had organized the notorious debacle called “Advancing American Art,” intended for an extended global tour, featuring the work of, among others, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ben Shahn, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden (Lawrence and Bearden were among the few African American artists to enjoy serious recognition in the 20th century). The left-wing tendencies of some of the work and many of the artists—around half of the artists in the show turned up in HUAC records—along with Congressional and media aversion to contemporary art and particularly to its public support, resulted in the retreating of American art, the show being recalled in 1947 as if it were a faulty product. Among the choice philistine remarks of Harry Truman that are associated with the failure of “Advancing American Art” is the immortal, ”I don’t pretend to be an artist or a judge of art, but I am of the opinion that so-called modern art is merely the vaporings of half-baked, lazy people.”

But back to Coleman and Pollock. Here’s Coleman, fully baked and acutely energized, from a New York Observer piece in 2006, at a Pollock show at the Guggenheim:

Ornette Coleman stands before Jackson Pollock’s Number 13 (1949), one of the more poetic splatter paintings, ferociously dense yet airily light. He ponders it for several minutes, tracing his index finger over its subtler patterns. “These don’t look like strokes,” he finally says in his hushed, gentle tone. “They look like signals or messages, like a letter he’s writing in the form of art, like some advanced Braille.” He laughs and looks some more. “It’s not something that you’ve seen before that you can name. It’s something that he created as he did it. The act of creation is the creation.”

The piece goes on to point out that in the liner notes of Coleman’s Change of the Century in 1959, “he described his music as ‘something like the paintings of Jackson Pollock.’ ” Then:

Gazing at Green Silver, another 1949 “all-over” masterpiece, he says, “See? There’s the top of the painting, there’s the bottom. But as far as the activity going on all over, it’s equal.” He pauses and shakes his head, impressed. “It’s not random. He knows what he’s doing. He knows when he’s finished. But still, it’s free-form.”

“I paint sometimes myself,” Mr. Coleman said. “I know what’s behind wanting to paint. You want to touch something you can’t see. This term ‘abstract art’—what it means is something that causes you to see more than what you’re looking at.”

A quote drippingly good enough to eat. However, had Pollock lived, it’s quite possible he never would’ve returned the favor to Coleman. Pollock the jazz fan was a curious case of arrested development: he had no stomach whatsoever for bebop. Among the merchandising associated with the 1999 Pollock retrospective at MoMA was the compilation CD Jackson Pollock Jazz, featuring 17 of Pollock’s favorite cuts from his personal collection of 78s, which makes for a playlist about as fifties-hip as Dwight Eisenhower. As Nat Hentoff noted in the Wall Street Journal at the time of the Pollock show,

“He would get into grooves of listening to his jazz records … day and night for three days running until you would climb the roof!” recalls Lee Krasner about her husband Jackson Pollock’s immersion in jazz in their Springs, Long Island, home. “The house would shake. He thought jazz was the only other creative thing happening in this country.”

Although Pollock was hardly a traditionalist in his own art, his taste in jazz was for the classic New Orleans pioneers, the quintessential swing bands, the blues bards and Billie Holiday. He had no use for such legendary modern-jazz figures as Charlie Parker, who were accused by traditionalist critics of burying the melody, splintering the rhythms and creating dissonance within dissonance.

Pollock, sadly, was apparently not interested in hearing more than what he was listening to.