Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Real Ambassadors

In a Cold War context, “jazz was a natural” in the arsenal of cultural diplomacy. So concludes Fred Kaplan a piece in the New York Times on the Jazz Ambassadors Program of the mid 50s. Possibly because jazz during the years when the program was launched, was not only a purely homegrown art form, but also a regular mass culture export.

So, it is interesting that when Kaplan asks what would be today’s “secret sonic weapon” the answer seems to still be jazz.

Present day’s version of the Jazz Ambassadors Program is called Rhythm Road and although it does offer what is referred to as “urban” music (not sure whether this is supposed to be an inclusive term, or just a euphemism), the main focus of the program is still jazz. It is however not with the stars of yesterday or even today, the groups are all fairly unknown. Not that this would make much difference in terms of impact, as the great names of jazz today hardly receives the world press attention of big rock, pop or even “urban” names.

During the 1950s the names of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington certainly had an impact both in and outside of the US. Enough to carry political clout even? Kaplan cites the example of Armstrong refusing to go on a planned tour to the Soviet Union during the events at Little Rock, suggesting that this put additional pressure on Eisenhower to send in the National Guard. Perhaps other forces were at play here, but as Penny von Eschen points out in her book, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, there is no doubt that the musicians taking part in the tours were fully aware of the complicated agendas and the double standards of a program advertising America as the great democracy of the world, while civil rights were being systematically suppressed in the US.

The Real Ambassadors was a jazz musical written by Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola in collaboration with Louis Armstrong. In essence it was a satire over the State Department tours and a scathing comment on race relations in the US. It was performed just once in a concert version at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962. There was talk of taking it to Broadway, but no one would touch it for its controversial nature. In recent years, jazz vocalist Dianne Mower has been working hard at finally getting the show produced on Broadway. In today's political climate the lyrics to the title song are once again pertinent.

Also, what seems to be consistently overlooked is the fact that this brand of cultural diplomacy was, by nature of the music, a dialogical affair – American jazz musicians did not only bring jazz to the countries they visited, but also came into contact with various other music cultures – learning and absorbing new influences. But of course, that is not part of the narrative that uses jazz as a metaphor for the national American spirit. For this, it is important that jazz remains a purely American art form – one that offers a superior vision of “democracy” and “freedom”. One that has refuses to acknowledge the inherent hybrid nature of jazz. And one that by its essentially static position would seem to be ill equipped to deal with present day intercultural encounters.

The fact is that even though the tours are still embedded in discourses of canon, tradition and national romanticism, the reality is that the dialogue continues. As Kaplan reports...

Before the bass player Ari Roland went to Turkmenistan last year, he learned some Turkmen folk songs. His band played jazz improvisations of these songs with local musicians — the first time such mixing had been allowed — and a 15-minute news report about the concert ran on state television several times the next day.

Jazz came into existence as a creolized form – a meeting of various cultural expressions. Because of this and the openness of the improvisatory approach it has retained the ability to enter into musical conversations with the other. And this is why jazz is viable as an effective cultural bridge. It can, perhaps better than any other music form, be both global and local.

The Real Ambassadors:

Who's the real ambassador?
It is evident we represent American society
Noted for its etiquette, its manners and sobriety
We have followed protocol with absolute propriety
We're yankees to the core.

We're the real ambassdors
Though we may appear as bores
We are diplomats in our proper hats
Our attire becomes habitual, along with all the ritual

The diplomatic corps
Has been analyzed and criticized by NBC and CBS
Senators and congressmen are so concerned they can't recess
The State Department stands and all your coup d'etat have met success
They caused this great uproar
Who's the real ambassador, yeah, the real ambassador?

I'm the real ambassador.
It is evident I was sent by government to take your place
All I do is play the blues and meet the people face-to-face
I'll explain and make it plain, I represent the human race
I don't pretend no more.

Who's the real ambassador?
Certain facts we can't ignore
In my humble way I'm the USA
Though I represent the government
The government don't represent some policies I'm for.

Oh we learned to be concerned about the constitutionality
In our nation segregation isn't a legality
Soon our only differences will be in personality
That's what I stand for!
Who's the real ambassador, yes, the real ambassador?

Dave & Iola Brubeck