Jazz has a long and illustrious tradition of building bridges throughout the world. Jazz artists are effective ambassadors abroad. But they can also make a difference here at home. I read this excerpt from a New York Times article in 2008 about a photo exhibit honoring these early forays in jazz diplomacy. “Ambassador Satch” Louis Armstrong spoke truth to power and helped bring about change in the civil rights struggle here at home.
When Armstrong arrived in the Congo as part of a 1960 tour through Africa, drummers and dancers paraded him through the streets on a throne, a scene captured by a photograph in the exhibition. As late as 1971, when Ellington came to Moscow, an American diplomat wrote in his official report that crowds greeted the Duke as something akin to “a Second Coming.” One young Russian yelled, “We’ve been waiting for you for centuries!”
The stars were happy to play their parts in this pageant for hearts and minds, but not as puppets. After his Middle East tour Gillespie said with pride that it had been “powerfully effective against Red propaganda.” But when the State Department tried to brief him beforehand on how to answer questions about American race relations, he said: “I’ve got 300 years of briefing. I know what they’ve done to us, and I’m not going to make any excuses.”
Armstrong canceled a 1957 trip to Moscow after President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to send federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce school-integration laws. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said. “It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.”
Administration officials feared that this broadside, especially from someone so genial as “Ambassador Satchmo,” would trigger a diplomatic disaster. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told Attorney General Herbert Brownell that the situation in Arkansas was “ruining our foreign policy.” Two weeks later, facing pressure from many quarters, Eisenhower sent the National Guard to Arkansas. Armstrong praised the move and agreed to go on a concert tour of South America.
The jazzmen’s independence made some officials nervous. But the shrewder diplomats knew that on balance it helped the cause. The idea was to demonstrate the superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union, freedom over Communism, and here was evidence that an American — even a black man — could criticize his government and not be punished.
You can read the entire article here
As we prepare to embark on the jazz bridge I’m hopeful that we too can realize the potential we have as ambassadors and actors for positive change.