Jazz Ambassadors revisits time when Cold War diplomacy got hip

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It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing — and a handy role in a Cold War propaganda campaign.

In the late ’50s, U.S. government officials eager to make a case for America’s superiority to Communist regimes found a new vehicle to deliver the message to a global audience. They staged a series of global tours of top jazz musicians to showcase the popular and inclusive art form, promoting the democratic values enshrined in the music while also offsetting the backlash brewing among African Americans fed up with discrimination.

Those tours wound down in the ’70s, but a new film next year will revisit their legacy. Presented by New York’s WNET, the 90-minute Jazz Ambassadors will showcase the overseas adventures of jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington.

Director Hugo Berkeley describes himself as a longtime music enthusiast and jazz fan, and his past projects include a 2008 documentary about Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. When he saw footage and photos of Armstrong playing in Ghana in 1956, “I was just fascinated by that story and wondered how it came to be.”

His curiosity led him to Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, a 2006 book by historian Penny Von Eschen. “I couldn’t believe a film hadn’t been made about it yet,” Berkeley says, and he got to work. A move to London and fatherhood slowed him down, but last year, he finally had time to start research.

Jazz Ambassadors will cover the first eight years or so of the State Department program, which got underway after Adam Clayton Powell, a congressman representing Harlem, enlisted Dizzy Gillespie to be the first musical representative. With his signature fashion sense and bebop credentials, the trumpeter seemed almost too hip to mesh with the Eisenhower administration. Some conservative lawmakers even opposed the idea.

But the trip went according to plan, and Gillespie and his band played for enthusiastic fans in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Their last stop was in Greece, where rioters had recently protested U.S. support for the country’s government. But Gillespie’s jazz was a hit. “That was a moment when people in charge of the program realized that it could have a big impact on America and how it’s perceived,” Berkeley said.

Other tours soon followed. Their value as pro-U.S. propaganda was twofold. On one hand, jazz reflected democratic values. Its performers didn’t necessarily have formal training, and the music encouraged self-expression tempered with a collaborative spirit.

But officials saw another advantage — the tours showcased respected black celebrities at a time when the Soviet Union was eager to play up America’s poor treatment of African Americans.

The musicians were not always willing spokesmen. In 1957, Armstrong was booked for a tour in the Soviet Union. But he backed out when the Eisenhower administration hesitated to intervene in the battle over school desegregation in Little Rock, Ark.

“The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” Armstrong said. A week later, U.S. soldiers accompanied black students to school in Little Rock.

In the end, the performers gained just as much from their travels as their backers. Brubeck composed pieces inspired by the music he encountered overseas — check out “Blue Rondo a la Turk” on his classic Time Out album — and Ellington was inspired to write his Far East Suite.

For these musicians, the recognition from the U.S. government marked an arrival of sorts. “This was a big statement in terms of jazz’s importance as the American classical music,” Berkeley said. “People had been waiting for something like this — a sign of a kind of institutional acceptance.”

Berkeley’s film will draw on archival footage of the performances and visits, as well as interviews with surviving musicians who toured. Their dwindling ranks give the project added urgency. “Every day, you’re a little bit scared to open the paper and see the obituary section,” Berkeley said.

The director has finished much of the research and is working to polish off the script, aiming to start production early next year. He hopes to hear within a few months about a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, applied for in August in partnership with WNET.