The Cool War | The Nation


The Cool War

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Conover's standing as "The World's Favorite American" (the Reader's Digest verdict) and later as "The Man Who Brought Down Communism" wasn't challenged until October 1983, when amid a fever of expectation Miles Davis played to an estimated 5,000 Poles at the Sala Kongresowa in Warsaw, arguably the most important jazz concert ever held in the Soviet bloc. Poland had been under martial law since December 1981, and the principles of glasnost and perestroika were still some years away. On a single night, the man who had proved too much of a loose cannon for State Department sponsorship decades earlier advanced the cause of Polish liberation more than any previous visitor. The CIA's role in the visit isn't clearly known, but one former case officer told me that the Davis concert was regarded as a "hazardous success," since Miles wasn't willing to marry his instinctive resistance to totalitarianism with even a hollow endorsement of American values.

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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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That story falls outside the scope of Von Eschen's book, but it chimes intriguingly with her title story. The cover of Satchmo Blows Up the World shows Louis Armstrong and his wife in Egypt, in front of the Sphinx at Giza in January 1961. Pops reaches for a high F; the great monument, emblem of the cradle of civilization for Afrocentrists, gazes back impassively. As much as he admired Armstrong, Miles recoiled from the accommodating manner that allowed him to become "Ambassador Satch." In her fine introductory chapter, Von Eschen describes how on a later visit to East Berlin, Armstrong and some of his musicians came out of their hotel to find everything closed. The trumpeter had well-attested social needs (what State Department representative Thomas Simons described, apropos an Ellington Middle East tour, as "seeking recreation in public") and insisted that they go over to the West to find a nightclub, a move technically impossible with Russian papers. The East German guards recognized "Satchmo," took his autograph and waved him on through Checkpoint Charlie. The Americans did likewise. There could be no more potent demonstration of jazz's ability to break down frontiers, and yet it was made by a man who had grown up in a South still only one generation away from Reconstruction and whose ambassadorial status had been won by his ambiguous adoption of the traditional entertainer's role.

Von Eschen's title is an obvious play on words, lent extra weight by the recognition that Armstrong, Brubeck, Ellington and the others who followed Gillespie to the Old World and the Third World on government-sponsored tours may even have helped prevent the world from blowing up. The stories she tells are marvelous and often touching, like the one about a November 22, 1963, performance by Ellington and his band in Baghdad. Ellington and his sidemen had been told they were in a hot spot, a message ominously echoed by the sound of gunfire in the night. After the concert, they were stunned to discover that JFK had succumbed to sniper fire back home.

But what comes across even more strongly in Satchmo Blows Up the World is the flagrant paradox of a marginalized people sent abroad to sing the praises of the very country that marginalized them. The other fascinating aspect of the story is the one left largely untold: the impact on American musicians of musical traditions--African, European, Middle Eastern--that often seemed to share substantial common ground with the bebop and swing they were bringing to a wider world in America's name. While it's hard to measure the political impact of the State Department tours, they had a substantial influence on the musical thinking of those "jambassadors," who returned home with new rhythms and harmonies ringing in their ears. Perhaps even more than the Americanization of global culture, the enduring legacy of cold war musical diplomacy was the internationalization of jazz.

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