The Cool War

The Cool War

The US government employed jazz musicians as ambassadors to the world during the cold war.


On August 1, 1956, the 84th Congress extended the terms of the President’s Emergency Fund and ratified a pet project of the Eisenhower regime, the unrevealingly named Special International Program. A cold war dateline almost inevitably lends the words a sinister and clandestine aura. One can imagine the young CIA zealots who people Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost huddled in Berlin clubs or the crush bar at the opera, nursing steins of beer or glasses of sekt and making sophomoric puns about “SIP.” The reality was both more innocent and odder, and clubs and concert halls were the appropriate setting.

In Satchmo Blows Up the World, Penny Von Eschen, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, describes a “can-do” bipartisan foreign policy culture in which postwar “policymakers exhibited extraordinary confidence in America’s ability to shape the world in its image with whatever tools it had, be they covert operations, carpet bombing, or jazz musicians.” The touch of bathos only underlines the ambiguity of American sponsorship of jazz as a propaganda instrument. Between 1956 and the late 1970s, the State Department dispatched jazz musicians to an array of Third World and Soviet bloc countries, including East Germany, Iraq and the Congo, visits that seemed to coincide with unnerving predictability with outbreaks of unrest or civil wars. The Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington tours of 1958 and 1963, respectively, found themselves in the middle of Iraqi coups, while saxophonist Phil Woods, on a pioneering tour with the Dizzy Gillespie band, arrived in Abadan, Iran, to the smell of crude oil and the sound of gunfire over the border in what had once been a troubled corner of the British Empire.

Jazz is an art of improvisation. Even so, it’s surprising to learn just how ad hoc the State Department packages apparently were. Jazz tours to the Balkans and Middle East–it’s worth remembering that Ellington’s Far East Suite was really a “Near to Middle East Suite,” as the peerless Johnny Hodges solo on “Isfahan” bears out–were part of a Truman Doctrine commitment to take over anti-Communist activities from the British and to support a cordon sanitaire, or “perimeter defense,” against Communist encroachment on a line from Turkey to Pakistan. But while the itineraries were carefully planned–and the whiff of crude detected by Woods nicely suggests the considerations involved–the exact propaganda content was not.

In her introductory chapter, “Ike Gets Dizzy,” Von Eschen points to the irony of the Southerner Dwight Eisenhower, probably the last overt segregationist to occupy the White House, putting his weight behind a man whose family was driven from Cheraw, South Carolina, to Philadelphia by poverty and fear of the lynch mob. The Dizzy Gillespie band made the first government-sponsored tour of the Middle East. It was a decision that sparked outrage and envy in his old friend and fellow trumpeter Miles Davis–not, admittedly, known for his diplomatic tact–who reminded anyone who’d listen that he had run a multiracial band as early as 1949 with his “Birth of the Cool” nonet. Von Eschen crisply points out the “glaring contradiction” in State Department policy, which promoted “black artists as goodwill ambassadors…when America was still a Jim Crow nation. Indeed, the primary contradiction of promoting African American artists as symbols of a racial equality yet to be achieved would fundamentally shape the organization and ideologies of the tours.”

Quite how it shaped the organization Von Eschen doesn’t make entirely clear, beyond pointing up the haphazard nature of the State Department’s choices, but the plural form of “ideologies” is telling. Concerned that “our successes are usually described in terms of automobiles,” Eisenhower wanted to dispel the European notion that American society was driven by materialism, much as progress in the Soviet Union was measured by tractor production. To export a different idea of America, he looked to works like Porgy and Bess, which had already enjoyed a four-year tour in Europe, South America and the Middle East. Gershwin’s plantation drama was not likely to put a color-blind face on American culture, as Eisenhower apparently (and hypocritically) desired. Then again, there seems to have been no clear consensus on what jazz represented or how it might be used to spread American values abroad.

What is more, America’s “jazz ambassadors” had ideas of their own that at times challenged their sponsors’ agenda. At a 1978 festival in Bombay, the saxophonist Sonny Rollins remarked that, far from being distinctively American, jazz was “really an international music” and that, as a student of Eastern philosophy and music, he was more interested in learning from other musical cultures than in imposing his own. As Rollins’s comment suggests, jazz musicians were not simply passive instruments of American cold war policy, and their work increasingly showed the influence of the music they encountered abroad.

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.)

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.

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.

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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