Friday, November 17, 2006

Satchmo Blows Up the World

Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War
By Penny M. Von Eschen
Harvard University Press tradepaper back

During the Cold War, Communist officials had a difficult time modulating the official party-line on American jazz. It was of course American, and therefore suspect. Jazz did however, have the advantage of being associated with the downtrodden, particularly African-Americans, frequent subjects of Soviet propaganda. Yet, the clear aesthetic of freedom at the core of American jazz was unmistakable, even to tin-eared party functionaries. While sometimes performances were sanctioned, jazz was more often prohibited. It was jazz’s spirit of freedom that made Willis Conover’s jazz show the most popular programming on Voice of America. With Conover as an advisor, the U.S. State Department established a program of jazz tours as a means of spreading that spirit of freedom during the height of the cold war, through Eastern Bloc and non-aligned nations. Penny Von Eschen’s Satchmo Blows Up the World, now in tradepaper, sets out to tell the story of these tours.

Unfortunately, rather than write what could have been a fascinating account of jazz history, Von Eschen preferred to write a didactic revisionist critique of U.S. Cold War policy. In Von Eschen’s world view, racist America was incapable of acting responsibly on the world stage, and exploited the touring musicians as propaganda tools in its geo-political struggles with the Soviet Union. It is certainly legitimate to condemn Jim Crow segregation, which in fact caused mixed feelings on the part of some musicians asked to represent America abroad. However, Von Eschen seems almost completely blind to the historical horrors of Soviet repression.

When relating an incident in the Russian port city of Sochi, in which members of the Benny Goodman band feared for the safety of the leader of the local jazz society, Von Eschen shows little of the outrage which permeates most of the book:

“Trumpeter Joe Newman and Catherman [of the U.S. State Dept.] were talking with the chair of the local jazz club and several members when ‘three motorcycle policemen roared up.’ The police ‘arrested the chairman, confiscated all the phonograph records and Benny Goodman books’ which had just been distributed, and then ‘roared off with their arrestee.” After aggressive intervention with the Soviet authorities by Catherman, the young man appeared the next day to say goodbye to the orchestra. He explained the arrest had been a mistake, but left the musicians and Catherman to wonder whether he was still at liberty.” (p. 112)

When the Soviet Army invades Prague, to Von Eschen it is simply an expression of the Kremlin’s “conservatism,” and hardly worth mentioning. When the CIA takes action against the Communist-aligned Lumumba government in the Congo, her outrage is palpable.

The real problem with Satchmo Blows Up, is not the ideology of the author per se, but rather the constant editorializing which hopelessly disrupts the book’s narrative flow. Von Eschen’s research is excellent. There is previously unknown information about the lives of great jazz artists, which their admirers will find fascinating. Ellingtonians will certainly read with satisfaction when Von Eschen quotes a State Department official describing Soviet functionaries as “scared of Ellington, both personally and politically because “they admitted they knew of his relationship with the President [Nixon], and because of the Duke’s importance in the United States in general.” (p. 206)

Indeed, her account of an aging Ellington representing America in Southeast Asia with the same grace and verve he displayed throughout his life is truly inspiring. Ellington’s belief in America’s Cold War mission and his personal relationship with Pres. Nixon is somewhat baffling to Von Eschen, who grapples for a historical explanation:

“In Ellington’s youth, the Republican Party was still the party of Abraham Lincoln. The Democratic Party was not only the party of the solid South but the party of Woodrow Wilson, the president who brought legal segregation to the nation’s capital and to the black Republic of Haiti after the U.S. invasion in 1915, when Ellinton was an adolescent.” (p.123-124)

That Ellington could have taken a hard look at Soviet’s record on human rights and found it lacking is never considered. Neither is Ellington’s music seriously considered. In fact, very little attention is given to the actual music played on the tours by any of the musicians sponsored by the State Department. Von Eschen’s accounts of the tours themselves often descend to an “if-this-is-Tuesday-this-must-be-Dakar” style of itinerary recitation. In fact, many of the cables from local Foreign Service Officers quoted in the book show more interest in the music than Von Eschen does.

One particular shortcoming is the contempt Von Eschen clearly expresses for Benny Goodman, as a musically conservative figure, who explicitly supported America’s Cold War mission. Goodman was notoriously autocratic as a bandleader, and legendarily tight with a dollar. He also risked his career and livelihood in 1936 when he led the first racially integrated combo to perform in public, with Lionel Hampton on vibes and Teddy Wilson on piano. While not perfect, Goodman deserves more nuanced treatment than the caricature Von Eschen presents.

The irony of Satchmo Blows Up, is that Von Eschen does exactly what she accuses the U.S. State Department of having done. She uses jazz musicians simply as propaganda tools, showing no interest in them as artists. She does so at the expense of her narrative, repeating the same rhetorical points constantly, even with the same paragraphs. Even jazz fans who wholly share Von Eschen’s politics are likely to be frustrated by this book, simply because it is poorly written. Jazz played an important role in the Cold War. It was a symbol of freedom to many musicians and artists. It is a story that deserves to be told in a better book.

(Note: citations from hardcover edition.)