The Jambassadors


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Dizzy. Satchmo. Duke. The world knows these icons as great music makers and jazz innovators, but they were also official cultural ambassadors. A photography exhibit opening Friday at the Old U.S. Mint captures the global mission of America’s top jazz musicians during the Cold War.


The Louisiana State Museum presents, Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World, a photography exhibition that follows the international tours of great jazz musicians on their quest to represent the United States for the State Department by sharing their music and culture with the world. The exhibit features more than 90 photographs of jazz legends including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and others in more than 35 countries and across four continents from the mid 1950s to early 1970s. The exhibit runs through September 25.


During the Cold War, the Soviet Union offered criticisms of the United States as being racist, culture-less and materialistic. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration wanted to show the world that the USA may not have been a bastion of classical art like ballet, but instead, it had soul. So, as a response to the Soviet Union, African-American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. suggested sending jazz music and its “Jambassadors” on overseas tours. They met with foreign leaders and expressed American ideals.


“Blacks represented a different face of America, and the State Department wanted to show music created by blacks and whites that the world could appreciate,” says Robert O’Meally, Professor of English and the former director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. “Jazz had the complexity, beauty and popular appeal that they wanted. You could even make the case that a jazz band was the perfect example of democracy in action.” O’Meally curated an earlier version of the exhibit that was displayed at New York City’s Lincoln Center.


In 1956, Dizzy Gillespie and his band were the first to represent the United States as Jazz Ambassadors on a trip to Iran. Both State Department officials and the musicians themselves were astonished to witness the great love, adoration and lasting impression they left on the nation’s leaders and its people.


“The mission was very successful. Simply because the music sounded great and no one could resist it,” O’Meally says.


Despite the initial success, the State Department had other concerns. Jazz represents freedom, musically with its twists, turns and improvisations and physically, with its racially mixed band of musicians, O’Meally says. While America itself was struggling with civil rights, the agency worried that the “freedom movement [in America] would spark a freedom movement and rebellion in the politically warring foreign countries, and the Department didn’t want that,” O’Meally says.


The State Department continued to send famous jazz musicians on cultural missions. Pictures of their travels capture Louis Armstrong being carried like a king in Ghana. Dizzy Gillespie rides a motorcycle with a Yugoslavian composer and Benny Goodman plays clarinet for a crowd of Soviet children. Not only did the Jambassadors win over elites with their infectious music but their warm personalities won over musicians and citizens as well.


“They were all curious,” says Curtis Sandberg, vice-president for the Arts at the Meridian International Center in Washington. “They really wanted to learn what other people were all about — being that jazz is such a flexible medium that could embody other musical styles and traditions. They listened to other styles and traditions and incorporated it into their own music.”


The Meridian International Center created the exhibit. Sandberg says that little has been done on the Jazz Ambassadors before, and the show “typifies everything that Meridian stands for — the use of culture, music and any measure of the arts to share with other people.” The expo includes four types of images: pictures of the Jambassadors meeting officials, playing for the people, performing at notable places and traveling.


“[The tours were] a model, a very successful model that people still use today. Not only with jazz, but with rock as well. The idea of sending out musicians…produced an organic revolutionary product,” Sandberg says.


O’Meally will discuss the significance of the Jambassadors mission during his keynote address at the seminar portion of the Satchmo Summerfest on Thursday, July 30. — Briana Prevost


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