Thursday, May 03, 2018

The Jazz Ambassadors: Cool Diplomacy from the Real Ambassadors

Nobody wants to talk about it, but America is losing its edge on the soft power front. We used to be the unchallenged world leader when it came to movies, TV, and contemporary music, but, we no longer have the same overwhelming advantage in 2018. Gagas and Beyonces are increasingly irrelevant in the era of internationally rising K-Pop groups like Girls Generation and 2NE1. It was a different story during the Cold War. Some of the most influential jazz artists in history participated in U.S. State Department sponsored good will tours—and the world loved them. Hugo Berkeley chronicles the rocky but mostly successful jazz diplomatic initiative in The Jazz Ambassadors (promo here), which premieres tomorrow night on PBS.

Before the musicians stepped onto the airport tarmacs, their music had already won over the world, especially countries behind the Iron Curtain, thanks to Willis Conover’s Voice of America jazz program, Music USA. Listeners eagerly traded samizdat recordings of his broadcasts, drinking in his music and the freedom jazz represents. Seeing them in person was an ecstatic joy they could never reasonably hope for. The so-called “non-aligned” nations were a tougher room to play. They were highly susceptible to the USSR’s incessant propaganda exploiting Southern segregation. Inevitably, this led to awkward moments when musicians touring on behalf of the State Department spoke out against Jim Crow.

Not surprisingly, Penny Von Eschen, author of Satchmo Blows Up the World, appears as a talking head and served as advisor to the film, which makes sense since she has written the only book on this subject. Yet, that means the film reflects her biases, at least to some extent. A great deal of time is devoted to the national embarrassment of the Jim Crow South, but there is absolutely no discussion of the Soviet’s oppressive human rights record and the resulting stakes involved in the Cold War. If all knew about the Cold War came from Jazz Ambassadors, you would be amazed the West won and most likely depressed at the injustice of it. Obviously, this is highly problematic.

Nevertheless, it is nice to see Conover get his due. The presence of Russian and Polish jazz musicians and fans also provides a bit of balance. Still, the selective cherry-picking can be frustrating. In fact, they make Duke Ellington sound like a rather reluctant participant, whereas he believed in the American cause (as well as the need for greater progress on Civil Rights). He even forged a friendship with Richard Nixon.

It is even more depressing to realize how many of the musicians of that era are now gone. Only Charli Persip (it is strange the film does not use his preferred spelling, identifying him instead as “Charlie”), Bill Crow, and Quincy Jones were available to talk about their personal involvement in the tours. However, some of the best recollections come from musician Darius Brubeck, who accompanied his legendary father Dave Brubeck on the quartet’s tour of Poland. Happily, one critically important thing the film gets right is the real deal jazz score composed by Michael J. McEvoy and recorded by an ensemble of London-based jazz musicians.

The truth is the West’s victory in the Cold War was a triumph for democracy and human rights, whereas a Soviet victory would have been disastrous for human civilization. Musicians like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman were heroes for answering their country’s call to service. Frankly, it is depressing and even frightening that we have apparently not applied the lessons of the Cold War to the War on Terror. There has been virtually no soft power-cultural component to the campaign against Daesh and Al-Qaeda—but then again, there is nobody on the scene who can remotely approximate the talent and stature of Armstrong or Ellington. Recommended just so people know this happened (and not necessarily as the final word on the subject), The Jazz Ambassadors airs tomorrow night (5/4) on most PBS stations nationwide.