Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies

By Robert G. O'Meally; Brent Hayes Edwards et al. | Go to book overview

PENNY M. VON ESCHEN


The Real Ambassadors

In 1955 Felix Belair, Stockholm correspondent for the New York Times proclaimed that "America's secret weapon is a blue note in a minor key" and named Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong as "its most effective ambassador." Belair had been in Geneva covering the decidedly unsuccessful East–West conference of November 1955 when Armstrong passed through Switzerland on the triumphant tour that would be commemorated in the album "Ambassador Satch." "What many thoughtful Europeans cannot understand," argued Belair, "is why the United States Government, with all the money it spends for so–called propaganda to promote democracy, does not use more of it to subsidize the continental travels of jazz bands.… American jazz has now become a universal language. It knows no national boundaries, but everyone knows where it comes from and where to look for more." The jazz/Cold War metaphor was infectious. In 1956 Armstrong performed before a crowd of more than one hundred thousand in Accra, Ghana. Signifying on the trumpeter's virtuosity and pervasive fears of nuclear disaster, Africa–wide Drum magazine quipped, "Satchmo Blows Up the World."1 If, as Belair suggested, the U.S. government was a bit slow to catch on to the diplomatic value of jazz, the State Department would soon take up Belair's suggestion with a missionary zeal. Beginning with Dizzy Gillespie's 1956 tours of the Middle East and South America, over the next two decades the State Department sent hundreds of jazz musicians on tours of Africa, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Latin America, South America, and Asia.

In the words of the writer and lyricist Iola Brubeck, "The entire jazz community was elated with the official recognition of jazz and its international implica–

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