The Cool War | The Nation


The Cool War

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By the 1950s, jazz had made considerable strides toward establishing itself as an art music, yet the American authorities were keen to emphasize its populist credentials. When Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. helped organize the 1956 Gillespie tour, the State Department told him to downplay high culture in favor of "real Americana"--i.e., folklore rather than art. Ironically, in the war for hearts and minds, jazz was promoted as a "people's music" with proletarian appeal. In a similar way, Soviet cultural propaganda zigzagged between folk dancing and the Bolshoi Ballet, and between two philosophical poles (equally applicable to jazz), one asserting the freedom of the individual--or soloist, mutatis mutandis--within the ensemble, the other exalting the collective over the individual. Even when Duke Ellington made a hugely successful Soviet tour in 1971--at one point photographed with saxophonist Paul Gonsalves under a banner that read in Cyrillic script Lenin's Directives Live On and Triumph--there were still dissident voices. Some Russians complained that while the Soviet Union sent the West Nureyev and Shostakovich, all they got in return was "jungle music" and Elvis Presley. (Nureyev, of course, rather spoiled the picture by defecting.)

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Brian Morton
Brian Morton is a former academic, Times of London journalist and BBC arts and music presenter. He currently writes and...

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The following year Boris Spassky met Bobby Fischer in Reykjavík for the world chess championship, an encounter billed on both sides (albeit with different emphases) as a confrontation between Soviet discipline and Western individualism. In fact, as David Edmonds and John Eidinow point out in their recent book Bobby Fischer Goes to War, Spassky was a freethinking sybarite, fond of good wine and pretty women, disastrously apt to ignore his seconds, while Fischer was the chess machine.

Satchmo Blows Up the World is a fine contribution to the growing literature on the broader contours of cold war cultural politics, by scholars no longer content merely to trade on ironic puns: Coca-Colonization, the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine, Rock and Rollback. Among the best examples are Robert Haddow's Pavilions of Plenty (1997); Walter Hixson's Parting the Curtain (1997); Frances Stonor Saunders's The Cultural Cold War (1999); Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones's Cloak and Dollar (2002); and, most recently and best of all, David Caute's encyclopedic The Dancer Defects (2003). From these books we have gained a behind-the-scenes understanding of the economics of American secret intelligence, and of the CIA's covert sponsorship of anti-Communist cultural organizations and journals like the British Encounter. Perhaps the most controversial thesis, though, and the most illuminating in this context, was advanced by Serge Guilbaut in How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War (1983). Guilbaut showed how, in CIA-funded exhibits of American art abroad, Jackson Pollock's abstract canvases were held up (like jazz) as an ideal representative of American freedom, the antithesis of Soviet Socialist Realism. The outwardly improbable association of the postwar American avant-garde and American democracy was reflected when Atlantic Records reproduced Pollock's White Light on the cover of Ornette Coleman's 1960 album Free Jazz.

Even so, it's an association that calls for a number of caveats. The younger Pollock had been a student of the rural realist Thomas Hart Benton, and he began his career in a style that might well have seemed to express American individualism. In his mature work, however, "Jack the Dripper," as Time magazine famously called him, showed a marked dependency on Native American spiritualism and Jungian ideas about the collective unconscious, which don't exactly square with individualism of any nationality. Those who carelessly read into Guilbaut's account a picture of Pollock plied with whiskey by men from Langley as they briefed him on Abstract Expressionism's contribution to American foreign policy ignore the fact that the process Guilbaut described only began after Pollock's death in 1956.

The Gillespie band of that year was supposed to offer a snapshot of American democracy at its most affirmative; the presence in the lineup of a female trombone player, Melba Liston (who went on to a distinguished career as an arranger), helped to evoke a society in which gender as well as color lines were vanishing. On both accounts, the suggestion was laughable, as Robert O'Meally notes in The Jazz Cadence of American Culture (1998), a collection that also includes an important essay by the musically conservative but politically astute Stanley Crouch, "Blues to Be Constitutional: A Long Look at the Wild Wherefores of Our Democratic Lives as Symbolized in the Making of Rhythm and Tune," which explores some of the connections between jazz and democratic politics. The conundrum that Von Eschen, O'Meally and Crouch all touch on is that the marketing of American jazz as a music of democracy and freedom was confounded by American realities, not to mention the grim reality of the jazz musician's life. A similar issue applies to Willis Conover, veteran host of Voice of America's Music USA--"Time for jazz!"--which in 1955, the year before the Gillespie tour, reached an audience of 30 million in eighty countries, a figure that rose to an estimated 100 million a decade later. Conover's precise diction was an asset for an international broadcaster. Jazz fans in the Soviet bloc preferred his undogmatic approach to the clunking propaganda of Radio Free Europe.

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