Tag Archive for Jazz Ambassadors

Cold War Jazz Diplomacy: Intro

WRJamSessionIf 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.

Sonny Rollins: Freedom Suite

Freedom Suite Rollins cover alternateSonny Rollins wouldn’t find himself in the State Department’s jazz diplomacy picture until the comparatively mellow 1970s. In 1958, four years after Brown v. Board of Education, in the early years of America’s jazz war on the Soviets, a record like Freedom Suite was not the stuff of Jazz Ambassadorship. As A.B. Spellman, who is quoted extensively in Ka-ching regarding U.S. jazz policy, says in an NPR interview, part of a series about building a basic jazz library, Rollins here, in a tenor sax-bass-drums trio, is “trying to make a statement about the freedom of his people and about his own musical freedom as well.” Spellman adds, “It’s one of the very first extended compositions for the tenor saxophone. . . . It is the kind of piece that is so well-composed in its improvisation that you cannot tell where the writing starts and the playing ends.”

Unfortunately, the incongruous reverse side of the record, with interpretations of standards like “Till There Was You” from The Music Man, vitiates the disc’s overall revolutionary import. As Bill Shoemaker notes in The Wire, Freedom Suite

is a protest jazz masterpiece, albeit one relegated to a back seat behind works by Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and even John Coltrane by some critics. There are several reasons for this. Despite being inspired by Rollins’ first-hand experience of housing discrimination in New York, it was . . . released before the Civil Rights Movement reached critical mass nationally. Shortly after its release, Rollins famously dropped out, causing the jazz press to scurry around attempting to discover which bridge he practiced on at night. And, most importantly, the sidelong trio performance . . . did not have the militant edge of pieces created just a few years later. Being coupled with a side of politically incorrect waltzes and show tunes arguably dissipated its impact.

Indeed, Rollins’ emphasis on the status quo of jazz standards was brought home, as I note in Ka-ching, when Ornette Coleman made a surprise guest appearance at Rollins’ 80th birthday concert at the Beacon Theatre in 2010, the first time the two had ever shared a stage. This astounding clash of cultures—even though they’re playing a blues, it’s like two worlds colliding—can be heard here.

Yet another world collides with Rollins in David S. Ware‘s version of Freedom Suite, recorded in 2002 and unencumbered by the distractions of other material, even though the CD runs only 40 minutes. Scott Hreha in One Final Note:

Upon realizing that this envisioning of Freedom Suite is twice as long as the original, some potential listeners may assume that the extra padding comes as a result of extensive blowing between the piece’s melodic parameters. However, the opposite couldn’t be truer—Ware has endowed the suite with a beauty of epic proportions that, while it does inject a great degree of musical freedom into Rollins’ conceptual liberation, never relies on aimless meandering to achieve that goal. In fact, the suite’s four movements, added piano and classic sense of interconnectedness recall A Love Supreme as much as Rollins’ original . . .

Shoemaker adds:

Just as Rollins had to rein in his good humor and his propensity to quote corny standards to make a compelling statement, Ware had to be slightly less withering than usual to convey the earthiness of Rollins’ themes. His trademark exultancy prevails, but without turning the materials into scorched earth. Subsequently, he stays true to both Rollins and himself, which is the measure of a healthy sense of tradition.

Though Rollins and Ware are not generally considered overtly “political” artists, protest and exultancy, I contend, are all part of the same healthy—and, one hopes, dangerous—tradition.