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.”