Posted by on August 6, 2022 8:36 am
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America could use a little jazz diplomacy

Sitting at the Newport Jazz Festival on a recent hot summer weekend, I was reminded of the power of music to bring us together in a spirit of peaceful coexistence —something that has eluded us for months if not years.

The estimated audience at the peak of this year’s sold-out event at Fort Adams State Park in Rhode Island was 11,000. Other than possible heatstroke, I saw nothing in the way of negative emotion in the large crowd. People sat on portable chairs, under tents or on blankets, swaying to the sounds of music by the likes of Norah Jones and Terence Blanchard.

Returning to polarized, partisan and politically paralyzed Washington, D.C., it occurred to me: America could use a bit more jazz these days.  

Against the backdrop of a new cold war with Russia and the war in Ukraine, one is tempted to imagine how we managed our image in the 1950s, when we were obsessed with the Soviet Union as an ideological foe. How did we make ourselves known and understood in a deeply divided world?

One tool we successfully employed when the world seemed overheated was music — specifically jazz.

A bit of history: Seeking to expand American cultural power in a new era, the U.S. government launched, in February 1942, nearly three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a radio station initially known by the plural “Voices of America,” which became the singular “Voice of America” (VOA). It’s still operating today.

By the 1950s, at the height of anti-communism, America needed to up its messaging game. In 1955 the VOA conceived of a way to reach Europeans and, by extension, Russians, with American chords and sounds rather than just rhetoric to convey a sense of American innovation.

As Nicholas Cull writes, in “The Cold War and the United States Information Agency,” the VOA’s plans for 1955 included a “disk jockey program ostensibly aimed at Scandinavia but reaching the U.S.S.R, originally proposed by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.” Cull recalls how listeners in Europe on the evening of Jan. 6, 1955, heard the exhilarating strains of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A-Train” signature tune, followed by the resonant, tobacco-deepened voice of host and jazz expert Willis Conover.”

Willis Conover and jazz enthusiasts like Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.)  recognized that American jazz could be exported around the world with even greater resonance than political propaganda and would show a side of America that embodied freedom even as the image of a racially divided country took hold. Jazz could handle the discordant notes.

In 1956, Powell arranged for his close friend Dizzy Gillespie to make the State Department’s first goodwill jazz tour with an 18-piece band traveling all around southern Europe, the Middle East and south Asia. It drew widespread acclaim, applause and a headline in the New York Times that year, “United States Has Secret Sonic Weapon —Jazz.”

Jazz Diplomacy, as it came to be known, took off over succeeding decades. At a recent photographic exhibition at Meridian International Center, there are images of Dizzy Gillespie in 1956 charming a snake with his trumpet in Karachi, Pakistan; Louis Armstrong in ’61, surrounded by laughing children outside a hospital in Cairo; Benny Goodman in ’62, blowing his clarinet in Red Square; Duke Ellington in ’63, smoking a hookah at Ctesiphon in Iraq. Throughout the 1970s, talented artists such as Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis toured the world playing on America’s behalf.

In 1988 Conover said in “Jazz Forum,” “Jazz is the musical parallel to our American political system and social system. We agree in advance on the laws and customs we abide by, and having reached agreement, we are free to do whatever we wish within those constraints. It’s the same with jazz.”

Today there are still musical exchanges and jazz programs funded by the United States government, but they lack the luster and passion of earlier days. Congress continues to fund many of our nation’s educational and cultural exchanges, but the sums pale in comparison to what America spends on defense and foreign assistance.

At a time of social media, rampant disinformation and intense struggles between democracy and authoritarianism, we should revisit the role of public diplomacy and cultural affairs as a tool in our foreign policy toolkit. Truth be told, we could all use a bit more music in the world.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice in Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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