Volume X, Special Issue on Jazz

"Ambassador Dizzy: Jazz Diplomacy in the Cold War Era" by Pierangelo Castagneto

Pierangelo Castagneto is Associate Professor of U. S. History at the American University in Bulgaria. He is the author of Old and New Republics. The diplomatic relations between the Republic of Genoa and the United States (2010), Hostilities against Malaria. The Rockefeller Foundation in Bulgaria (2013), and co-editor of America and the Mediterranean (2003). He is currently completing a study on the philanthropic activities of the Rockefeller Foundation in the Balkans in the 1920’s and the 1930’s. Email:

In those days jazz was America’s secret weapon number one.
Every night the Voice of America would beam a two-hour jazz program
at the Soviet Union from Tangiers. How many dreamy Russian boys came
to puberty to the strains of Ellington’s “Take the A Train” and
the dulcet voice of Willis Conover, the VOA’s Mr. Jazz.

Vasily Aksyonov, In Search of Melancholy Baby


In 2006, the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opened the 50th anniversary commemoration ceremony of a critical episode in U.S. public diplomacy history: Dizzy Gillespie’s 1956 State Department funded world tour. In fact, during a crucial phase of the ideological confrontation of the Cold War, in order to culturally contain Communism, the Eisenhower administration turned to an unconventional weapon: jazz music.

Back then [in 1956], America’s civil rights movement was still in its infancy and we still had a long way to go to live up to the democratic ideals of our country’s founding. But it was in American culture, in the story of people like Dizzy Gillespie that one could see the future promise of our country. A young man of modest means, the youngest of nine children, whose creative genius transcended boundaries of race, and class, and culture. Even at a time when liberty was denied here in America – a time that I remember well as a girl growing up in the segregated city of Birmingham, Alabama – the music of Dizzy Gillespie spoke the language of freedom; the freedom to think, to innovate, and to speak in one’s own voice. This liberating power of jazz resonated here at home and it had great appeal to millions of people around the world, many of whom still longed for their own liberty. For these audiences, in Latin America, in Europe, and in the Middle East, Dizzy Gillespie’s world tour left an indelible impression of the vibrancy of American culture, the diversity of American society, and most of all, the power of hope that freedom holds for all people. (Jazz, Public Diplomacy)

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the traditional approach characterizing the field of Cold War studies shifted focus from the diplomatic and geopolitical confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union to a variety of alternative perspectives that, inter alia, significantly contributed to render a more nuanced portrait of the postwar American society. If, on one hand, the historical debate concerning a reconceptualization of the same idea of Cold War is far from being exhausted, on the other, as Joel Isaac and Duncan Bell have pointed out, “historians are now finding manifestations of characteristically Cold War mentalities and practices across a considerable expanse of American history: from the history of science and technology to the study of the religious institutions and race relations; from the local to the global and the transnational; from state craft to architecture;” a new all-embracing agenda where the political machinations ordained in Washington and Moscow are left in the background (Isaac and Bell 3-4). Along with that can be considered a cultural turn in Cold War studies, the call for internationalizing the study of American history over the last previous decades has expanded the geographical boundaries of Cold War history, offering a global perspective, moving the focus from traditional centers to peripheries, and introducing new themes and methods of analysis (Leffler and Westad). As part of this effort to reconceptualize the study of America’s past within a broader context by examining the influence of international developments on the nation’s political, social, cultural, economic, and intellectual life, many historians and legal scholars have progressively paid more attention to the linkage between the international arena and the African American struggle for equality, between domestic racial politics and American foreign relations. In this new perspective, some scholars have particularly emphasized the complex relationships developed among the Civil Rights Movement, anticolonialism, Third World nationalism, American popular culture and foreign policy.

The United States government was relatively new to promote arts, nevertheless the spread of the international cultural invasion of the 1950’s by American artists was inconceivable without the assistance of federal programs (Kammen 791-814). As Mary L. Dudziak noted, from the years following World War II, “U.S government officials realized that their ability to sell democracy to the Third World was seriously hampered by continuing racial injustice at home” (Cold War Civil Rights, 62-63). Despite the implementation of policies of domestic containment, for the Truman Administration to tackle the issue of race discrimination and segregation forcedly became a Cold War imperative. In 1946, very significantly, Secretary of State Dean Acheson brought attention to the fact that

The existence of discrimination against minority groups in this country has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. We are reminded over and over by some foreign newspapers and spokesmen, that our treatment of various minorities leaves much to be desired. . . . Frequently we find it next to impossible to formulate a satisfactory answer to our critics in other countries. (qtd. in Dudziak 1998, 101)

Convinced that cultural influence was strictly related to political and economic powers, the Eisenhower administration sponsored America’s leading jazz musicians’ tour abroad as part of its cultural foreign policy agenda. These initiatives helped the United States government in its global propaganda campaign against the Soviet Union and its communist allies, who widely reported and successfully exploited the racial tension and violence that accompanied the rise of the Civil Rights movements in the United States – after Brown v. Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine, especially – an example of blatant hypocrisy coming from the nation claiming to lead the free world. Moreover, the so called jazz ambassadors had another function: they contradicted the assertions coming from communist propaganda that Americans were “cultural barbarians” and that materialistic capitalism could only produce commodities rather than highbrow culture. Finally, in early 1950, the U.S. State Department was increasingly concerned that domestic racial relations could have a negative impact “on the dozens of countries on the verge of independence from Western colonial powers;” new nations, most of them with a non-Caucasian population, viewing racism in the United States as a strong reason to ally with the Soviet Union rather than the West (Monson 2007, 107-108). In this perspective, a crucial event was the Asian-African Conference (also known as the Bandung Conference), a meeting of Asian and African states, most of which were newly independent, which took place on April 18–24, 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia. Tito, Nasser, Sukarno, Zhou Enlai, and Nehru were the leaders who laid out the conference’s major goals to promote Afro-Asian economic and cultural cooperation and to oppose colonialism or neocolonialism by either the United States or the Soviet Union, or any other imperialistic nations. The conference was an important step toward the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement. The United States, through its Secretary of State John Foster Dulles shunned the conference, and were not officially represented (Parker 867-892; Von Eschen 1997, 167-180).

Aware of the winning steps that the Soviet aggressive cultural diplomacy was making (Barghoorn), the Eisenhower administration launched what can be defined as a restyled, large-scale “psychological warfare” (Hixson). In August 1953, the United States Information Agency (USIA) was established as an independent foreign affairs agency within the executive branch of the U.S. government charged with the conduct of public diplomacy in support of U.S. foreign policy. Besides, USIA was engaged to explain and advocate U.S. policies in terms that were credible and meaningful in foreign cultures, to advise the President and U.S. government policy-makers on the ways in which foreign attitudes will have a direct bearing on the effectiveness of U.S. policies, and finally to denounce anti-capitalist rhetoric of TASS, the official news agency of the Soviet government (Cull). One of the most powerful instruments of this American psychological warfare during WWII, the Voice of America (first broadcast aired in February1942), passed under the direct control of USIA. On January 1955, VOA officials decided to start a jazz program; they called Willis Conover, a well known jazz producer, to broadcast it. Music USA, a one hour, seven nights a week program, introduced jazz music to millions of people beyond the Iron Curtain. According to Von Eschen, Conover’s jazz show “helped to lay the groundwork for the emergence of the jazz ambassadors.” Conover, who usually avoided overt pro-America propaganda, nevertheless described jazz as “structurally parallel to the American political system” and saw its structure as embodying American freedom (Von Eschen 2004 13-17; Krugler; Starr 235-260).

At the same time, the appointment as Special Assistant to the President of Charles Douglas Jackson was surely another tangible signal of the administration’s shift in countering Communist cultural offensive. Jackson was an expert in psychological warfare; he had served in the OSS in North Africa during the WWII, after the war he became managing director of Time-Life International Publications; he was a speech writer for Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential campaign, president of the National Committee for a Free Europe (1951-1952), and strenuous defender of Radio Free Europe; finally he played a key role in establishing the Bilderberg Group in 1953/1954 (Leviero 5). As President’s special assistant to Cold War planning, Jackson, who during the war had earned Eisenhower’s friendship, was now called to devise new strategies for a new kind of psychological warfare in order to tackle Soviet propaganda and spread American values throughout the world.

The first director of USIA, Theodore C. Streibert, a former New York radio and television executive, clearly pointed out the agency’s mission that was not “to get foreign people to support the United States, or to sell our ideas abroad.” Rather it was “to show the people of the other lands by means of communication techniques that our objectives and policies are in harmony with and will advance their legitimate aspirations for freedom, progress and peace, meaning that we are trying to identify ourselves with the aims and aspirations of these other people so as to establish a mutuality of interests” (DEPL Streibert Report). Despite the climate of universal suspicion generated by McCarthy’s purges, and the severe budget cuts, “with the support of Eisenhower and the NSC, USIA found its niche by devising and carrying out anti-communist propaganda programs and cultural initiatives worldwide” (Hixson 122-125).

One year later, on July 27, 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a letter to the House Committee on Appropriations showing the administration’s belief in the importance of cultural diplomacy. “I consider it essential,” wrote the president, “that we take immediate and vigorous action to demonstrate the superiority of the products and cultural values of our system of free enterprise.” The administration sought funds “to stimulate presentation abroad by private firms and groups of the best American industrial cultural achievements, in order to demonstrate the dedication of the United States to peace and human well-being and to offset worldwide Communist propaganda charges that the United States has no culture and that its industrial production is oriented to war” (Foreign Relations of the United States ). In August, Congress approved Eisenhower’s request to pass Public Law 663 which gave birth to the President’s Emergency Fund for International Affairs. The Fund was allocated in three categories: the Department of Commerce received $2,592,000 to develop and facilitate U.S. involvement in international trade fairs; the State Department received $2,250,000 for representations of American dance, theater, music, and sports abroad; finally the USIA was granted $157,000 to help publicize performing arts and sports events. In 1956, the fund was made permanent under Public Law 860, the International Cultural Exchange and Trade Fair Participation Act. In a letter addressed to Streibert, President Eisenhower confirmed the rationale of the initiative:

As you know, it is my intention that these funds to be used to extend U.S. participation in international trade fairs and to demonstrate to peoples of other countries our accomplishments in the cultural field both through direct Government activities and by means of assistance and encouragement to private groups. It is my further desire that these funds be used for projects of all kinds that will demonstrate in a dramatic and effective manner the excellence of our free enterprise system as reflected in our products and our cultural values. (CU Eisenhower to Streibert, September 15, 1954)

From this moment on, the program was renamed as the President’s Special International Program for Participation in International Affairs, commonly known as the Cultural Presentation Program (CPP). The act also created an Advisory Committee on the Arts, “imbued with the power to help choose the program’s participants and to evaluate its effectiveness” (CU President’s Emergency Fund). The Bureau of International Educational and Cultural Affairs of the Department of State designated the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) as the professional agent for administering the program. The State Department also approved the creation of several panels to select American performing arts to tour abroad for the United States. These included panels for drama, dance, music, and, later jazz. Members of the original Music Advisory Panel were composers Virgil Thompson and Howard Hanson; William Schuman, composer and president of the Juilliard School; Paul Henry Lang and Jay Harrison of the New York Herald Tribune; Harold Spivacke, chief of the Music Division of the Library of Congress; Carleton Sprague Smith, director of the Music Division of the New York Public Library; Edwin Hughes of the National Music Council; and Al Manuti, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians.

In consideration of the small amount of money allocated for such initiatives, from the beginning it appeared clear that government funding was not meant to pay the full costs of exporting the performing arts; it was rather expected there would be commercial bookings and private support. When artists went abroad under the auspices of the fund, USIA staff was responsible for coordinating activities and public relations. Soon after Eisenhower’s emergency fund was initiated, the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB), a committee reporting to the NSC, was established “in order to provide for the integrated implementation of national security policies by the several agencies” (Executive Order 10483, September 2, 1953). The board’s membership included the Under Secretary of State, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Director of the Foreign Operations Administration, the Director of CIA, the Special Assistant to the President for Psychological Warfare/National Security Affairs, and the Director of USIA. After the passing of PL663, in a 1955 Music Journal article titled “Are the Communists Right in Calling Us Cultural Barbarians?” Representative Frank Thompson, Jr. (Dem.-NJ), author of the law and strong advocate for the use of the arts to promote national interests, argued that “making Washington the cultural center of the world would be one of the very best and most effective ways to answer Soviet lies and defeat their heavily financed effort to support the spread of communism.” Thompson, in drawing a connection between the state’s role in domestic cultural activities and its international image argued:

if we have no respect for our own best cultural efforts, if we show no concern as a people and as a nation for our own contemporary culture and our living artists, then the peoples of other countries are hardly to blame if they ignore and are indifferent to the cultural contributions which we have to give the world. We have only ourselves to blame, for they take their cue from our own Federal Government. In this situation, the communist parties in various countries and the USSR find it extremely easy to spread their lies that we are gum-chewing, insensitive, materialistic barbarians. (Thompson, Jr. 5, 20)

During the debate concerning PL663 at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the USIA director Theodore C. Streibert explained that “The purpose is to combat the Soviet and Soviet bloc advances in trade fairs and cultural activities. . . . This last year, 1955, the Communist bloc had exhibits in trade fairs in 41 different countries and in 149 fairs, and had 288 exhibits. . . . In the fields of cultural dealings, in 1954, from the U.S.S.R. alone, there were 88 cultural and sports delegations to countries of the free world. Last year the figure increased to 148. In the 2 years of operations under the President’s emergency fund, we have sent out 37 cultural and 7 sports delegations. . . . We think this is necessary in not only countering Communist activities, but even without that, to show the world our productive processes for domestic and peaceful use of our products, and to show our true interest in affairs of culture, such as the arts, music, dance, and drama. This is particularly necessary in some of the newly developed areas of Asia and the Far East.” Questioned by Senator J. William Fulbright about who might be able to determine “the value of an artist exhibit, whether it is good or not, or whether it represents America or not,” Streibert tackled the issue introducing the members of the Advisory Groups on Cultural Affairs for music, dance, and drama selected by the ANTA (CU General and Historical Files, February 21, 1956).

Few days later, the same discussion was held at the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. Here, Streibert, in order to show the effectiveness of cultural programs abroad, quoted an article appeared on an Indonesia newspaper, The Djakarta Times, after the dance performance of Martha Graham: “This Martha Graham has done with such virtuosity that she has dispelled the prevalent notion that Americans live in a cultural wasteland peopled only with gadgets and frankfurters and atom bombs.” Streibert was then questioned by Republican Representative Albert Paul Morano from Connecticut, about the composition of the OCB. At that point, giving an astonishing proof of his total ignorance about jazz music, Moreno asked: “What was the name of that trumpet player that went over?” “Louis Armstrong. He went on his own,” answered Streibert. “He went on his own?” “Yes. ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong.” “He created quite a stir in Europe,” continued Moreno, “and I was wondering whether or not this legislation would authorize that type of performer?” “Yes; it would.” replied Streibert (CU General and Historical Files, March 6, 7 and15, 1956).

Just two months following Murrow’s television exposure of Senator McCarthy, Chief Justice Earl Warren presided over the unanimous Supreme Court ruling in the case Brown v. Board of Education. This landmark decision in a way speeded up productions featuring Africa-American artists to be sent abroad: the first remarkable case is represented by George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess which toured from December 1954 through February 1955 under the auspices of Eisenhower’s Emergency Fund. Although Porgy and Bess had become part of the American cultural offensive even before the sponsored tour of 1954, being in the program of two festivals in Berlin, in 1951 and 1952, organized and funded by the American Government. The story of the staging of Porgy and Bess in Europe – the 1942 Cheryl Crawford’s production – is rather peculiar, starting on March 27, 1943, when the opera had its premiere at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. This performance is notable as it was performed by an all-white cast in blackface during the Nazi occupation. After 22 sold-out performances, the Nazis closed the production. Other all-white or mostly-white productions in Europe took place in Zurich in 1945 and 1950, and Gothenburg and Stockholm in 1948. In 1952, Blevins Davis and Robert Breen produced a new version of the opera restoring some of the original music and recitative cut in the Crawford version so that it assumed a more operatic than musical form. As such, Porgy and Bess was warmly received throughout Europe. The London premiere took place on October 9, 1952 at the Stoll Theatre, where it remained until February 10, 1953 (Prevots 16-21).

The 1951 Berlin Festival included a wide range of American performing artists and attractions: singers soprano Astrid Varnay and the Hall Johnson Choir, a production of Medea, the musical Oklahoma, the Juilliard String Quartet, and the dance-mime Angna Enters. Henry J. Kellerman, State Department official and Foreign Service officer working on U.S. – German relations, explained the rationale for the festival: “The idea underlying this singular undertaking was to demonstrate the high standards of American performing arts and achievements and, by implication, to refute Nazi and Communist propaganda clichés of American cultural insensibility and sterility” (Kellerman 126). In 1952, the Festival was inaugurated by the New York City Ballet: “One can dream of nothing more uniform and more balanced than this well-disciplined team from New York” wrote the Die Neue Zeitung (Prevots 20-21). The Porgy and Bess company also received high acclaim, as Kellerman reports:

The success of the American presence was nothing short of spectacular. The author decided to send Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to the festival from whence it was to go to other Europeans capitals. Well-meaning friends advised against it. So did prominent members of the American black community, who feared that German or even any European audiences were not ready to appreciate the message and that the sordid misery of Catfish alley would be taken to portray the normal life of the American black community. Yet the performance of a 65 all-black member cast was a triumph. It literally overwhelmed the Berlin audience. Comments in West Berlin were lyrical and not one critical note was heard from the Communist press in East Berlin. (Kellerman 127)

After the Berlin festivals experience, Porgy and Bess went on the road, in December 1954, thanks to Eisenhower’s Emergency Fund. The three month tour took the company to Zagreb, Belgrade, Alexandria, Cairo, Naples, Milan, Athens, Casablanca, Tel Aviv, and Barcelona. As a New York Times article from Yugoslavia confirmed, the reception of the opera and political meaning of the initiative were a remarkable achievement: “All Yugoslavia is singing today. The workers and the peasants are singing. The communist officials, the men in the streets, the students are all singing the songs of George Gershwin and the praises of the cast of the folk opera Porgy and Bess. All of the warm emotion of the Slav character welled up in a joyous affection for the seventy Negroes who came here a week ago and did more that put on shows in Zabreg and Belgrade. They made America and her people better known and appreciated” (qtd. in Prevots 28-30). The tale of the “culmination of a four-year world tour for Porgy and Bess” has an exceptional narrator: Truman Capote. In December 1955, in fact, the writer was sent by The New Yorker to accompany The Everyman’s Opera, an American theatrical company that had planned to stage of the musical in USSR. The narrative account begins on a foggy wet day in West Berlin when

the cast of the American production of Porgy and Bess and others associated with the company, a total of ninety-four persons, were asked to assemble at the company’s rehearsal hall for a “briefing” to be conducted by Mr. Walter N. Walmsey, Jr., and Mr. Roye L. Lowry, respectively Counsel and Second Secretary of the American Embassy in Moscow: Mr. Walmsey and Mr. Lowry had traveled from Moscow expressly to advise and answer any question members of the production might have concerning their forthcoming appearance in Leningrad and Moscow. (Capote 74)

The journey to Russia – three days traveling by train, the Blue Express, running from East Berlin to Moscow – had been arranged by the producers of the opera directly with the Soviet authorities and, according to Capote, was a tangible outcome of the “Geneva-spirit impulse.” During the briefing, Walmesy warned the members of company that, even though Gershwin’s music was pretty popular in the Soviet Union, “their system of government is basically hostile to our own. It is a system, with rules and regulations, such as you have never experienced before.” After discussing about several issues such as hidden microphones and cameras in the hotels, pasteurized milk for the children, the notorious KGB surveillance and the use of the word comrade, John McCurry, an African American member of the cast, raised a question about the “big problem”: “The big problem is, now what do we say when they ask us political stuff? I’m speaking of the Negro situation.” A hesitating Welmsey replied: “You don’t have to answer political questions, any more than they would answer questions of that nature put to them by you. It’s all dangerous ground. Treading on eggs.” Not satisfied, McCurry pressed Welmesy:

Then how do we handle it? Should we answer it the way it is? Tell the truth? Or do you want us to gloss it over? Walmsley blinked. He took off a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and polished them with a handkerchief. “Why, tell the truth,” he said. “Believe me, sir, the Russians know as much about the Negro situation as you do. And they don’t give a damn one way or another. Except for statements, propaganda, anything they can turn to their own interests.” (Capote 78-79)

If the racial implications of a company, visiting the Soviet Union, consisting of an almost entirely African American cast could not inevitably draw the attention and the alarm of the American government, Capote reveals other interesting details about the trip. The American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) manifested its contrariety to supporting the initiative, “on the ground that the State Department had already spent enough money on Porgy and Bess.” At this point, it was only thanks to the intervention on the Soviet Minister of Culture that the tour found its much needed economic sponsor. A formal contract was in fact signed on December 3, 1955, from which “it emerges the during their stay in the Soviet Union,” Capote clarifies, “the company would receive weekly payments of $16,000, a figure quite below their customary fee, especially so since the payments were to be half in U.S. Dollars in a bank check in New York, the remainder in cash Rubles at the official rate.” The agreement, included also “free lodging and food in first-class hotels” plus any traveling expenses, summing up to a $150,000 investment. But as Capote observes, this was not just “cultural philanthropy”: counting on the predictable sell out of the company’s performances, “the Ministry would have doubled its investment, that is, have a total box-office gross the equivalent of $300,000” (Capote 85-86).

The day after Christmas, Porgy and Bess première was staged at Leningrad’s Palace of Culture. As Capote points out the tangled plot of the opera, the unusual vocal and choreographic rendition and the risqué sensuality of some scenes, all this initially disoriented the Russian audience that remained in silence all the time but when after almost three hours the curtain descended, “they caught their breath, like passengers at the end of a roller-coaster ride, and began to applaud.” (Capote 171). In the following days, the local newspapers’ reviews rendered honor to the performance of the company while managing to score some propaganda points from the opera about the condition of the black people in America. The Evening Leningrad’s critic underlined the fact that: “We, Soviet spectators, realized the corrosive effect of the capitalistic system on the consciousness, the mentality and the moral outlook of a people oppressed by poverty.” A second journalist, expressing a little concern about the “the astoundingly erotic coloring of some of the dancing scenes,” conceded that Porgy and Bess “the high talent of the Negro people” and the performance “broadens our concept of the art of contemporary America” (Capote 176-177).

In an article published on November 6, 1955, The New York Times announced that “United States Has Secret Sonic Weapon, Jazz” (Belair Jr. 1). Underlining how European crowds “riot to hear Dixieland,” the European correspondent claimed that “right now” the most “effective ambassador” of America “is Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong.” The article strongly invited the American government to use “a blue note in a minor key” in its cultural programs: “What many thoughtful Europeans cannot understand is why the United States Government, with all the money it spends for so-called propaganda to promote democracy, does not use more of it to subsidize the continental travels of jazz bands.”

At that time, Armstrong’s reputation had been universally recognized: on February 21, 1949, he was crowned as Louis the First on the Time Magazine cover becoming “the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time” (Teachout 281-283). When in May 1956 Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars returned to America from their triumphal tour in Western Europe and British Gold Coast – soon to become the newly independent nation of Ghana – a sort of first unofficial diplomatic trip, CBS producer, George Avakian did not forget the New York Times article using it for the title of a milestone in music history, the Ambassador Satch album, which was released by Columbia. The trip to British Gold Coast was sponsored by CBS and Edward R. Murrow, and it would have produced material for the United Artists video-documentary Satchmo the Great (1957), and for the record album with the same title (Teachout 315; 370-371). Reasonably enough, because of the huge success of Armstrong’s tour, jazz music might have attracted the attention of the Music Advisory Panel (MAP). But when jazz musician Harry James was considered to be sent abroad as a potential performer, some of the members of the panel admitted their incompetence in evaluating jazz music: an expert was needed. Besides, another member of the panel, Edward Mangum, a theater director, maintained that before any popular music group a symphony orchestra should be sent abroad: “We are known all over the world for jazz; we are trying to indicate that we have other music.” Harold Spivacke, complaining about American snobbishness towards jazz, expressed a different opinion however: given that “Russians have made the point of associating us with lowdown jazz, and use it as propaganda against us, we should say we are proud of it.” As the minutes of one of the meetings confirms, the discussion among the members of the panel continued in a lively way on specifically thorny issues:

Mr. Shuman said that there has been a lot of controversy about the inclusion of jazz in our program; some people feel that we are selling out on the more serious work. Said that there is division of opinion as to whether jazz represents a boon or a handicap to our nation. Dr. Harold Spivacke asked whether these Negro bands have white players too? Yes, and in our projects we suggest mixed color groups. (CU Music, Music Advisory Panel Meetings, December 20, 1955)

Curiously, Spivacke never tried to get Alan Lomax involved in the panel’s activities, one of the greatest American field collectors of folk music of the Twentieth century who, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, working with his father, John A. Lomax, had recorded thousands of songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, and had popularized jazz and blues musicians including Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton, Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters. Spivacke knew Lomax very well: in 1937, at the time when he was Chief of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, Lomax was made Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress. Although mainly oriented to promote classical music, Spivacke supported Lomax’s field recording trips and other initiatives on several occasions (Szwed 104, 129, 140). It is true to say that when Spivacke became member of the Music Advisory Panel, Lomax was in England; in fact, in 1950, he preferred to leave the Unites States after his name had appeared in Red Channels, a pamphlet denouncing artists and entertainment figures suspected for their Communist acquaintances. Very likely, it was the “subversive” reputation surrounding Lomax that prompted Spivacke not to contact the ingenious ethnomusicologist. As a matter of fact, a few years later, a correspondence between Edwin Hughes, the Executive Secretary of the powerful National Music Council, and Gertrude Macy, a Broadway theatrical producer, then ANTA General Manager, shows how Lomax was still seen as a persona non grata, and how, very likely, Spivacke was among those who considered him as such.When, in fact, Hughes wrote to Macy asking “has anything been done about inviting Mr. Alan Lomax to be a member of the Music Panel as a specialist in folk music,” adding that he had enclosed “a couple of clippings which will indicate Mr. Lomax’s eminence in this particular field,” Macy’s answer was quite revelatory: about Mr. Lomax, she wrote, “it seems that one or more members of the Panel feel he is perhaps a bit too temperamental to be a solid member. I feel, therefore, that the prospect of electing him as a member has been, for the moment being at least, dropped” (CU Cultural Presentations Program, Hughes to Macy, December 21, 1960; Macy to Hughes, December 29, 1960).

By the end of the year, Robert C. Schnitzer, a theatre director/producer member of the MAP, got in touch with a qualified expert in the field, Marshall Stearns, president of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Hunter College. Besides, in 1956, Stearns had published for Oxford University Press The Story of Jazz, a popular introduction to jazz music. He was asked to start negotiations with majors artists: “Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Stan Kenton” were, according to Stearns, “the five best groups” (CU Music Advisory Panel Meetings, December 20, 1955). The first choice for the inaugural tour fell on Louis Armstrong but for the members of the panel he was too expensive and, besides, he was busy working on a movie project in Hollywood, High Society, a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story. Other options were then Duke Ellington and Count Basie but unfortunately both of them refused to fly. Kenton was touring in Europe. At this point the name of Gillespie was proposed: “he is an intelligent comedian, cultivated, with novelty acts, and his musical material is interesting. A tour is therefore suggested for him” (CU Music Advisory Panel Meetings, December 20, 1955).

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was then recognized, along with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, among others, as one of the creators of a new jazz style, bebop, developed in the early and mid-40’s, and characterized by harmonic complexity, fast tempo, few lyrics, instrumental virtuosity and improvisation which differed drastically from the straightforward compositions of the swing era (DeVeaux 1997; Erenberg 1999). Even if Dizzy had already seen his music highly praised during his first European tour, at home a critical consensus on it was far to come yet, “Screechingly loud . . . dissonant . . . and something Duke Ellington had thought better of a long time ago;” this was the assessment of Gillespie’s music coming from a Time magazine article in 1948 so the idea that an Afro-American bebopper might officially represent American culture abroad was daring, at least. Actually, the first European concert tour for Gillespie’s big band dates back to 1948. It lasted from January to March, touching Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, and France, and it “turned out to be one of the most important seminal events in the history of modern jazz in Europe” (Gillespie with Fraser 337). In 1954, Gillespie took part in the first Newport Jazz Festival, invited by George Wein, a jazz producer who organized the event. The two-day festival attracted in Rhode Island more than 12,000 fans, and it was hailed by major national newspapers and magazines as a major success (Shipton 202-203; Gillespie with Fraser 326-336). Despite its enormous popularity, on both sides of the Atlantic, many white critics in America considered jazz music a dangerous and primitive form of music, a manifestation peculiar of an inferior race the spread of which could send “US back to the jungle” (Anderson 135 Levine). The cultural status and the significance of post war jazz, and bebop in particular, a music conveying an uncontrollable aesthetic and social restlessness, had been also disputed by leading black intellectuals. In the article On Bird, Bird-Watching and Jazz, Ralph Ellison expressed a timid appreciation for the music of Parker, defined “a latter-day François Villon,” clarifying the range of the bepob revolution:

the thrust towards respectability exhibited by the Negro jazzmen of Parker’s generation drew much of its immediate fire from their understandable rejection of the traditional entertainment’s role – a heritage from the minstrel tradition – exemplified by such an outstanding creative musician as Louis Armstrong. But when they fastened the epithet “Uncle Tom” upon Armstrong music they confused artistic quality with question of personal conduct, a confusion which would ultimately reduce their own music to a mere matter of race. (Ellison 48)

Including Gillespie in his evaluation, Ellison pointed out that “for all the revolutionary ardor of his style, Dizzy Gillespie, a co-founder with Parker and a man with a savage eye for the incongruous, is no less a clown than Louis, and his wide reputation rests as much upon his entertaining personality as upon his gifted musicianship” (49). All things considered, in Ellison’s view Bird like Dizzy were nothing but “white heroes” (Ellison 62 Matlin 203-210).

A radically different interpretation comes from LeRoi Jones. For the African American author, “the war years and the period immediately after saw a marked resumption of the attacks by Negroes on legalized social and economic iniquity in America” (Jones 180). Left behind the swing big-bands era, a new generation of young, urban African Americans – the blues people – found again a way to get connected with their original musical tradition operating a cultural breakdown:

When the moderns, the beboppers, showed up to restore jazz, in some sense, to its original separateness, to drag it outside the mainstream of American culture, most middle-class Negroes (as most Americans) were stuck. . . . To a certain extent, this music resulted from conscious attempts to remove it from the danger of mainstream dilution or even understanding. For one thing the young musicians began to think of themselves as serious musicians, even artists, and not performers. Musicians like Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie were all quoted at various time as saying, “I don’t care if you listen to my music or not.” (Jones 181, 188)

Social transgression and racial otherness combined with a reassertion of many “non-Western concepts of music,” namely the African tradition of the blues, they are the keys, according to Jones, for placing bebop in the right context.

Before turning their attention to jazz, ANTA members had initially preferred to select among classical music and classically trained performers the artists who should represent America abroad. Besides, of those early government sponsored tours the majority of them, with few exceptions as the baritone William Warfield who had performed in Cairo in 1955 thanks to federal funds, were white. However, American performers were fighting a losing battle. In fact, the classical repertoire offered to European audiences was not very impressive, despite the quality and skill of the American orchestras or ballets, these performances were seen merely imitative of the European canon. Most of all, the shows did not reveal any American novelty, any proof of the American genius, they did not remove the suspicion of cultural inferiority lingering over the American society. For the MAP members called upon to single out an authentic American cultural product in contrast to the classical music repertoire, the alternatives were few and far between.

For sure it could not be rock and roll. Even if in 1956 the process of whitening Elvis Presley had already started with the release of a harmless movie, Love Me Tender, his blackness was not tamed yet though; Presley’s gyrations during the second appearance at the Milton Berle Show, on June 5, had clearly showed that he might still be considered “a definite danger to the security of the United States” (Guralnick 273-274; Lipsitz 303-334). Furthermore, in those same years, both jazz and rock and roll music had provided the soundtrack for movies such as The Wild One (1953), and Blackboard Jungle (1955) where American youth life style was represented in terms of alienation, self-destroying rage, restless sexuality, and disbelief in conformist values; all juvenile attitudes to be strongly contained rather than promoted. For a post-war generation of young white Americans, well aware to have to live with the impending menace of an instant death by atomic war, black jazz musicians’ unconventional habits and their music represented a sort of aesthetic escape. The rebel without a cause, the hipster, as Norman Mailer famously described it, living in an “enormous present, which is without past or future, memory or planned intentions,” he “had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white negro” (Mailer 276-293). According to Gillespie: “In early fifties the bebopper cult had reached its zenith. I looked around, and everybody was trying to look like me. Now, why in the hell did they want to do that? They even pretended to laugh like me (the newspapers said) and it was not a racial phenomenon. There were black and white people alike, by the tens of thousands, willing to stand up and testify for bepop” (Gillespie with Fraser 342 Monson 1995). On the other hand, the tragic death of Charlie Parker (1955), and the less than impeccable life style of many musicians did not help to culturally legitimize jazz music. As Gillespie conceded “Dope, heroin abuse, really got to be a major problem during the bebop era especially in the late forties, and a lotta guys died for it. Cats were always getting “busted” with drugs by the police, and they had a saying, “To get the best band, go to KY.” That meant the “best band” was in Lexington. Kentucky, at the federal narcotics hospital” (Gillespie with Fraser 283).

If the idea “of promoting jazz musicians as cultural ambassadors was the brainchild of an alliance of musicians, civil rights proponents, and cultural entrepreneurs and critics” (Von Eschen 2004, 6), the story of Gillespie becoming a jazz ambassador is strictly connected with the name of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the flamboyant Afro-American Baptist minister and civil rights activist from Harlem who served eleven consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1945 to1971 (Hamilton; Powell Jr.). As a matter of fact, in a November 18, 1955 New York Times article, quoting Powell, it was reported that the Department of State “would go along with his proposal to send fewer ballets and symphonies abroad and put more emphasis on what he called real Americana” (“Remote Lands” 16). The initiative of the Democratic Congressman may find its justification in the heavy Cold War atmosphere of suspicion and repression which, in those years, compelled many Afro-American leaders to openly show off – more or less sincerely – a true loyalty to the democratic American values and an unquestionable anticommunism, essential credentials in the pursuing quest for achieving full citizenship.

Although strongly hindered by the State Department – John Foster Dulles’ choice was that the United States was not officially represented – Powell had attended, as a simple observer, the Asian-American Conference of Nonaligned Nations in Bandung where “he defended his country against allegations that the persistence of segregation rendered the United States a hypocritical freedom fighter, at best” (Kelley 3-4). Questioned over race relations in America by a Ceylonese reporter, Powell gave an answer that surprised many:

Second class citizenship is on the way out. A few years ago Washington was an open cesspool of United States democracy. Today it is a place of complete equality. Every hotel, restaurant, amusement place, school and golf course is completely integrated. It is a mark of distinction in the United States to be a Negro. To be a Negro is no longer a stigma. A Negro has been elected to a city-wide office in Atlanta. Negroes are in office in Richmond and Norfolk. Virginia has decided not to resist the Supreme Court decision in favor of ending segregation in schools. (Bigart 4)

It was in November 1955 when Powell announced in front of the House Office Building in Washington the decision of the State Department to send jazz musicians abroad, into countries where “communism has a foothold.” Instead of talking “about Cold War,” Powell said, “we can call it a ‘cool war’ from now on.” According to Down Beat magazine, he had convinced the State Department that rather than “emphasizing ballet dancers and classical music, they can get real value out of spending the vast majority of money on jazz and other Americana such as folk music, mambos, spirituals, American-Indians dances, Hawaiian music and so forth” (“U.S. Government to Send” 6). Differently from Powell who, strangely enough, does not mention the episode in his autobiography, Gillespie remembers the happening as follows:

Adam Powell surprised me. I went to Washington once, in 1956, playing with a small group at the Showboat, and received a call from him saying come down to the House Office Building the next day because he had something to tell me. I arrived there and all these reporters were standing around, and then Adam made a statement: “I’m going to propose to President Eisenhower that he send this man, who’s a great contributor to our music, on a State Department sponsored cultural mission to Africa, the Near East, Middle East, and Asia.” (Gillespie with Fraser 413)

In early 1956, the Department of State officially announced that Dizzy Gillespie’s band had been chosen to be the first jazz group sent abroad under ANTA’s International Exchange Program. When the tour program was announced, Gillespie was in Europe with the Jazz at the Philharmonic, an all-star musical ensemble, which included famous artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Illinois Jacquet, Oscar Peterson, Roy Eldridge, produced by Norman Granz. Undoubtedly good was the commercial success and the response of the European audiences to the concerts organized by Granz: in fact, started in late 1955, the tour made “forty-two dates in a row, and in the spring of 1956 an international tour lasting eight weeks, following an opening concert in Oslo on February 18.” Gillespie and his group visited eleven countries, including Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Yugoslavia, and Italy (Shipton 264). The State Department then asked Dizzy to return to Washington to be briefed before embarking in his cultural mission but he refused: “I’ve got three hundred years of briefing. I know what they’ve done to us, and I’m not going to make any excuses. If they ask me any questions, I’m gonna answer them as honestly as I can.” Gillespie insisted that he “wasn’t going over to apologize for the racist policies of America,” but he “was very honored to have been chosen as the first jazz musician to represent United States on a cultural mission.” Besides, “I liked the idea of a big band that wouldn’t cost me any money” (Gillespie with Fraser 413-416). The task of assembling and rehearsing the band was given to the trumpet player Quincy Jones, “while he [Gillespie] entrusted the diplomatic dealings with Washington to his personal manager – his wife Lorraine” (Shipton 280-281). Once made up, the band would leave for Asia meeting Dizzy en route in Rome. Gillespie’s band, like others who participated in the State Department sponsored tours, was interracial by design: “We had a complete ‘American assortment’ of blacks, whites, males, females, Jews, and Gentile in the band,” as he pointed out in his autobiography. Initially the State Department had planned to begin the tour, on March 27, in Bombay, but because of the firm policy of nonalignment adopted by Nehru, India was canceled and arrangements were taken for commencing the tour in Abadan, Iran. Gillespie was perfectly aware that the tour, from the beginning “became highly political. . . . Persia was getting arms from the Unites States, so instead of opening in Bombay, they canceled.” As he noted: “Our tour was limited to countries which had treaties with the United States or where you had U.S. military bases: Persia, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey and Greece. We didn’t go to any of the countries the U. S. didn’t have some sort of ‘security’ agreement with” (Gillespie with Fraser 414, 417).

The band arrived in Abadan, remaining there for one week, and playing three formal concerts at the Taj Theatre. Despite the distance from the capital Teheran, the Shah in person showed up, in the company of his sister, princess Shams Pahleve. Although not being briefed in Washington, Gillespie played his diplomatic role with an informal approach far from revealing any patronizing attitude: “He did much more than just introducing American style music over there,” reported a newspaper, “he accomplished, perhaps better than all the ambassadors and envoys and ministers combined, the almost impossible feat of making genuine friends on an intimate personal basis” (“Indians Dizzy” Part 1, 22). In terms of musical repertoire, Gillespie devised a program that cleverly ranged through the history of jazz before arriving at the band’s regular arrangements –

in Gillespie’s words: “we played a historical account of jazz from 1922 to 1956.” Such a choice was very likely suggested by Marshall Stearns who, before the concerts, used to give lectures on the history of jazz in order to add “a highbrow touch” (“Professor Joins” 28; “Gillespie’s Band” 124). As another reporter commented, along with the sound, also the line-up configuration created some sort of anxiety: “Most of the Moslem audience had never heard this strange music before. Some looked with disfavor on girl trombonist Melba Liston and vocalist Dotty Saulter, whose very appearances violated orthodox Islamic tradition” (“Indians Dizzy” Part 2, 21). As Melba Liston noticed her presence aroused perplexities, but, at the same time, kindled hopes: “I had lots of women,” she remembers,

come to me in the Middle tours to find out how life was for women over here and how in the world I could be running around and there traveling and single when they were so subjected over there. And it sorta seemed to inspire a bunch of the sisters over there to demand a little more appreciation for their innate abilities. … They had things that they felt they were capable of doing and were not permitted to do. And they wanted to know how it happened that I could be out there doing such a thing.” (Gillespie with Fraser 415-416)

In Abadan, the band opened with the Iranian national anthem followed by that of the United States; then Charlie Persip on drums and Dizzy on bongo gave proof of their familiarity with African rhythms. Singer Herb Lance came next, “pouring his heart” into some spirituals. Then Dizzy and the band continued the show first playing some of Louis Armstrong’s classics, for moving to a series of arrangements illustrating the different jazz styles, and including compositions of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Jimmie Lunceford. At this point, according to the report of the Pittsburgh Courier, “the miracle began to unfold.” “These Arabs, who were completely ignorant of what jazz was and how to act at a jazz concert, started to catch the beat, awkwardly clapping in time with the music. Soon, whistles and screams reached the stage. By intermission the theatre was as hot as any American spot where Dizzy performed for long-standing fans.” This was the pattern followed throughout the tour as uninitiated audiences were “educated” and rapidly converted (“Indians Dizzy” Part 2, 21).

In a park of Karachi, Gillespie posed for photographers while trying to convert a cobra to jazz music, while jamming with a snake charmer: “I took my horn, I had a mute in, and I played and played along with him. Then he stopped playing and he said, “Now, move your horn from side to side,” and this cobra was following my horn. Apparently, I put my horn too close to his head, and he went, “Sspeeat!!” at my horn, man. I set the world record backward broad jump. I must have jumped back fifteen feet. This was supposed to have been a defanged cobra” (Gillespie with Fraser 418-419). This is not the only case showing how Gillespie carried out his official role without forgetting “to make friendship with the small people.” In the Pakistani city, he gave another proof of his diplomatic skill: when, for example, drummer Charlie Persip got sick, catching a stomach bug, to replace him Gillespie invited a local percussionist, a decision highly welcomed by the local audience.

In Ankara, Dizzy showed the same caring attitude. Invited to give a concert at the Turkish-American Club, he “noticed a gang of ragamuffins outside the wall, peering in. Before giving his downbeat, Dizzy leaned over the bandstand and asked a USIS official about the kids. The official explained that this concert was only for invited guests people. Dizzy characteristically said, ‘Man, we’re here to play for all the people.’ He won the point.” Thanks to the intervention of the American ambassador, who agreed to let in the ticketless people, Gillespie and his band played: “The kids came swarming in to the club, went berserk about the music and spread the word about town that ‘dis American’s OK.’ A few days later, in Istanbul, the crowd became joyously hysterical as the Gillespie band really opened up. Only a ‘non-bop’ rendition of the Turkish and American national anthems could quell the pandemonium.” Besides, as Marshall Stearns reported from Turkey, the quality of the music performed by Dizzy and his musicians was outstanding: “This is probably, right now, the best modern jazz band in the world. They are playing with a fire, cohesion and impact that is unbelievable, and the team spirit is soaring” (Stearns 57). Quincy Jones also remembered some frictions with the ANTA officials during the tour:

one of them came to rehearsal and stood in front of the band in a preppy wool suit and bow tie, and gave us advice in a flat, patronizing voice, saying, ‘I have nothing to tell you except that when you’re abroad, you’re representing our country. So please indulge in your various idiosyncrasies discreetly.’ This kind of talk got our jaws right. We were good and pissed off, but like the black soldiers in World War II, we kept on keepin’ on. (Jones 112)

The political tensions existing between the United States and some of the countries visited during the tour sometimes produced situations of uncertainty which Gillespie usually managed to disentangle with ease. The conditions for the Athens’ concert, for example, surely were not encouraging because of the U.S. policy toward Cyprus which backed the Turkish side. Actually, the day before the arrival of the band, the USIS office in the Greek capital had been assaulted by students. Dizzy decided to play anyway: “We’re artists. We came to serve the people, not to use them.” The first show, at seven in the morning, for students only, those same students “who’d thrown the rocks” the day before, turned out to be an incredible success: “The newspaper headlines said: “Greek Students Lay Rocks and Roll with Dizzy” (Gillespie with Fraser 424-425). Another political setback occurred in Egypt:

Trombonist Rod Levitt, the only Jew in the band, received a special treatment when the band landed for an hour layover, before flying off to Iran. Actually, the hostility between Israel and Egypt was heating up at that time. In Cairo airport waiting room, Levitt remembers, “they turned all the lights out and started showing a movie. It was kind of a propaganda movie against Israel, you know, and here I was sitting with Dizzy. I was kind of scared, you know. I didn’t know what was happening. And Dizzy says, laughing, ‘How do you like it?’” Officially Jews were not allowed to enter several Arabic countries therefore, in order to get a visa for Pakistan and Syria, the State Department changed Levitt’s religious affiliation from Jewish to Presbyterian. (Gillespie with Fraser 416-417)

Despite incidents such as these, as Gillespie could write at the end of first tour, the “cool war” could be considered a great success: “Our trip through the Middle East proved conclusively that our interracial group was powerfully effective against Red Propaganda. Jazz is our own American folk music that communicates with all peoples regardless of language or social barriers” (“Dizzy Urges Ike” 21). Even in Yugoslavia, the only Communist country visited, and where the audience was not familiar at all with jazz, Gillespie’s band received a “magnificent reception:”

America, our government, was very pleased with our activities because jazz was an art form the people felt, something they hadn’t seen before and which even heard, especially in Eastern Europe. In an interview in Yugoslavia a guy asked me questions about our music and I mentioned Armstrong in the course on the interview. They thought I was talking about a rubber company. . . . After the concert [in Zagreb] they had to cordon off the stage to protect us from the crowd’s unbounded enthusiasm. The mentality of jazz, its spontaneous organization, really got them. They couldn’t understand how we could seem so unorganized until we began to play. Our music really exemplifies a perfect balance between discipline and freedom (Gillespie with Fraser 423)

Gillespie also remembers as during a Marshall Stearns’ lecture at the Zagreb Conservatory of Music, Yugoslavia students had agreed that “jazz symbolized an element of unconscious protest which cut through the pretense of tradition and authority. It spoke directly and truly of real life” (Gillespie with Fraser 424).

A rather satisfying evaluation of Gillespie’s tour came also from the MAP:

This band started in cities that knew nothing about jazz, wrote Robert Schnitzer in a report, and played to packed houses by the third day. We are now working toward booking Gillespie in South America. We would have liked to have had Louis Armstrong, but he wanted too much money from this program. Mr. William Shuman asked if ANTA had received any letters of criticism for sending jazz artists, and the replay was negative. (CU Music Advisory Panel Meetings, June 12, 1956)

But at home, some voices of protest started to arise from politicians as Democratic Senator Allen J. Ellender from Louisiana, and Democratic Representative John J. Rooney from New York, who vigorously complained about the exaggerated amount of money that Gillespie’s government sponsored program had cost to the American taxpayers: “The big guns attacked us. . . . They got angry because I’d made $2,150 a week for two months, and President Eisenhower’s salary was calculated at $100,000 a year, a little under $2,000 a week. When they questioned me about it, I asked them haw many notes could the President play at one time” (Gillespie with Fraser 438-439).

A harsh critique came from Republican Senator Barry Goldwater who expressed his total dissent concerning the State Department choice to send Gillespie in lieu a local group from his home state of Arizona, the Tucson Kids Band. In a letter addressed to the Assistant Secretary of State Robert Hill, “Mr. Conservative” clarified how America should show a different face abroad, definitively white:

This particular item has reference to the recent tour of a negro band leader, Dizzy Gillespie, which apparently involved an expenditure by the Federal Government of the outrageous sum of $100.839 . . . . Without any intention of criticizing you, I am wondering just what there is about a program of this type which would more properly fulfill the Government objectives in the area of cultural assistance to foreign countries as opposed to the excellent presentation offered by a group of young boys who have joined together for the purpose of contributing to the musical life of our country, and who have indicated a willingness to share these accomplishments with people abroad. (qtd. in Gac)

A more underhand attack came from a New York Times article, where both the nature itself of the program and the race of the performers were put under severe scrutiny:

If Congress goes along with the Senate Appropriations Committee, foreigners may come to think of Americans as a nation of chorus-singers athletes. Alarmed by the impression of the United States conveyed by officially sponsored tours of performers such as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie (…) the committee urges Government-aided travel for choral groups and miscellaneous sports projects. (“Biceps and Choirs” 54)

The article, written during a very delicate phase of the Montgomery bus boycott, implicitly criticizes the choice made by State Department in dispatching blacks musicians to represent the United States abroad; as a matter of fact, the article fails to mention the names of “white ambassadors” who were, at the same time, touring with the support of the federal program (“Biceps and Choirs” 54). The State Department decision to promote, in late 1956, a tour of a much more conventional white jazz musician, Benny Goodman, may be considered an attempt to oppose such conservative attacks. In another article, also published in the New York Times, Donald B. Cook, chief of the State Department’s Special Projects Division, defended the two Gillespie tours in Near East and Latin America. Although they cost $141,000, Gillespie’s jazz band journey “had helped to offset reports of racial prejudice in the United States by indicating that it is possible for Negroes in this country to attain pre-eminence in the fields of arts” (“U. S. Finds Unrest” 18).

Von Eschen has clarified how “the jazz tours were part of a State Department strategy of not denying that discrimination existed in the Unites States but showing “progress” and emphasizing what a talented and motivated individual could achieve” (Race Against Empire 177). However, with the refusal to allow prominent black intellectuals such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois the right to travel abroad, the State department “sought to enlist its own black American representatives” assigning such a duty to jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong (Race Against Empire 167). During his diplomatic mission, Gillespie, prima facie, did not go too far from the strategy dictated by the State Department, and many of his statements seem to confirm that: “I urge you” he wrote to Eisenhower at the end of the first tour, supporting warmly the funding of a second one “to do all in your power to continue to exploit this valuable form of American expression of which we are so proud” (“Diz Set for Tour” 23). In his autobiography, Gillespie tells about how race relations in America often became a point of discussion with the audience:

People asked us a lot of questions about racism in the United States. But they could see it wasn’t as intense because we had white boys and I was the leader of the band. That was strange to them because they’d heard about blacks being lynched and burned, and here I come with half whites and blacks and a girl playing in the band. And everybody seemed to be getting along fine. So I didn’t try to hide anything I said, “Yeah, there it is. We have our problems but we’re still working on it. I’m the leader of this band, and those white guys are working for me. That’s a helluva thing. A hundred years ago, our ancestors were slaves, and today we’re scuffling with this problem, but I’m sure it’s gonna be straightened out some day. I probably won’t see it, completely, the eradication of racial prejudice in the United States, but it will be eliminated.” (Gillespie with Fraser 421)

By accepting the invitation of the State Department, Gillespie was well aware of the political implications entailed in the Middle East tour, nevertheless he was hardly a passive actor in the program. Perhaps, his acquiescence may find a rationale in his view of the existing condition of the African American in the American society: “Hell, I had my own way of “Tomming.” Every generation of blacks since slavery has had to develop its own way of Tomming, of accommodating itself to a basically unjust situation” (Gillespie with Fraser 295-296). True is that, in those same years, Satchmo, surprising many, showed a firm stance towards race relations in the U.S. “telling off Ike” during the Little Rock crisis, and canceling his already set State Department sponsored tour to the Soviet Union (“Satchmo Tells Off Ike”; “Louis Armstrong, Barring Soviet Tour” 23; Satchmo Blows up the World 63-76). But this apparently yielding attitude towards race relations did not prevent Gillespie from conveying different meanings to his performances by disregarding the obligations and the forms imposed by the nature of such an unconventional diplomatic mission: “Gillespie Refuses to Play for the Elite” was, for example, the headline in a Turkish paper the next day he negotiated with the American ambassador the admission of “little people” at the Ankara concert. It is this approach in dealing with common people, their habits, or even their musical tradition to give to Gillespie’s tour some unofficial and surely unplanned outcomes. Many were the situations where he preferred to reduce the distance between the performers and the public: in Pakistan, for example, he called on stage local performers to jam with the band, or, in another case, in Damascus, he paused the show precisely at sundown so that the audience could break their Ramadan fast with him backstage (Gillespie with Fraser 421-422). Drummer Max Roach, who teamed with him in those years, explained how Gillespie chose to make use of his music for denouncing the racial dilemma of American society:

Life for Dizzy has never been easy. He understands the whole game of how blacks are being ripped off by whites. So he doesn’t talk about it, but he uses music as a particular weapon. It always appears that Dizzy in fact is the most liberal person, it always appears like that, but when you look into the music and listen to what he is playing, he is screaming out there. The fact that he would get in front of a big band and dance instead of standing up there with a baton and the way he directs that band, is black. . . . When you look at him culturally, he is heavily steeped in black music, and when he makes a contribution, it’s blacker than black, or even blacker. (Gillespie with Fraser 399)

Musical producer George Wein explains Gillespie’s attitude seemingly: “Dizzy, while a rebel against society, at the same time knew he had to deal with society and dealt with it well, and has continued to deal with it, and has done more for making contemporary jazz palatable” (Gillespie with Fraser 399).

In the process of hegemonic legitimization of American culture abroad, the State Department’s “blacking up” of the foreign policy through the problematic adoption of jazz music as an original form of American art (Lott) revealed once again some unresolved tensions of a society aspiring to assume the leading role in the moral struggle against Communism. President Eisenhower, who was comfortable with neither jazz nor African Americans, deeming that the cultural leadership was a prerequisite in order to attain the world leadership, he truly believed in the potential of cultural diplomacy and often complained about the scarce attention paid by Congress in supporting cultural international programs (Hixson Osgood). The State Department and those who organized and managed the tours did not deem that the jazz ambassadors might develop and spread their own ideas and concerns about race, freedom, democracy, and music. In fact, they openly broke through the government’s official narrative, and offered to their to audiences across the world a different vision of the black American experience, defining its essential role played in the making of the American national culture. Representatives of a “counterculture of modernity”, African American jazz musicians were able to catalyze, both in political and aesthetical terms, all those social tensions that, at home and abroad, characterized post-WWII world (Gilroy 44-48). Gillespie, and after him, in different ways, other musicians as Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, “embraced the tours as opportunities to make claims on a nation that had long denied them recognition as artists, and human and civil rights as African American” (Satchmo Blows up the World, 250). In the final analysis, sending jazz, the “sonic weapon” abroad to fight Communism in a cultural “cool war” not only made known to the world the best form of American modernism but also revealed the deepest conflicts and contradictions of American society.


Dizzy Gillespie’s State Department Tours. For the first nine weeks tour on March – May, Gillespie’s band – 21 elements – was paid $1,950 per week, plus $15 per diem per person. The International Exchange Program agreed also to pay for transportation, $30,000, and the difference between income coming from the concerts and expenses up to $62,000. For the Latin American Tour, Gillespie’s band – 20 elements – was paid $ 2,500 per week, plus a $235 per diem (CU Performance Records G-P, 1956; CU Projects Completed and Approved for assistance, 1954-1966; CU International Exchange Program Contract for Dizzy Gillespie, March 1956, July 1956).


First Tour, March – May 1956

Second Tour, July – August 1956

March 27-30

Abadan, Iran

July 25

Quito, Ecuador

April 2-5

Dacca, Pakistan

July 26-27

Guayaquil, Ecuador

April 7-11

Karachi, Pakistan

July 28 –August 4

Buenos Aires, Argentina

April 14-17

Beirut, Lebanon

August 5

Montevideo, Uruguay

April 18

Damascus, Syria

August 6-12

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

April 19

Aleppo, Syria

August 13-15

San Paulo, Brazil

April 23-25

Ankara, Turkey

August 16, 17, 18

Belo Horizonte, Brazil

April 27-May 5

Istanbul, Turkey

August 19

Santos, Brazil

May 7-8

Belgrade, Yugoslavia

August 20-21

San Paulo, Brazil

May 9-10

Belgrade, Yugoslavia



May 12-21

Athens, Greece

Tour dates total






Tour dates total





Works Cited

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  • Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas (DEPL), Papers as President of the United States, 1952-1961 (Ann Whitman File), Cabinet Series, Box 5, Streibert Report to President and Cabinet, July 1, 1955.
  • DEPL, Papers as President of the United States, 1952-1961 (Ann Whitman File), Cabinet Series, Box 3, Eisenhower to Streibert, September 15,1954.
  • DEPL, Operation Coordinating Board (OCB), Central Files Series, Cultural Presentation Staff – President’s Fund Program (FY 1955; FY1956), Box 14.
  • DEPL, OCB, Central Files Series, OCB 007 (Cultural Activities), Box 14, Folder 1, April 1954 – June 1955.
  • DEPL, OCB, Central Files Series, OCB 007 (Cultural Activities), President’s Emergency Fund for Participation in International Affairs, Box 15, Folder 4, October – December 1955.
  • DEPL, OCB, Central Files Series, OCB 007 (Cultural Activities), President’s Emergency Fund for Participation in International Affairs, Box 16, Folder 1, June – August 1956; Folder 2, August 1956 – February 1957.
  • University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Mullins Library Special Collections, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Historical Collection (CU), Group II, Cultural and Presentations Program, Series 4, President’s Emergency Fund, Box 93.
  • CU, Group II, Cultural and Presentation Program, Series 5, Committees and Panels for Performing Arts, Box 100, Folder 1, Music Advisory Panel Meetings, December 20, 1955.
  • CU, Group II, Cultural and Presentation Program, Series 5, Committees and Panels for Performing Arts, Box 100, Folder 1, Music Advisory Panel Meetings, December 20, 1955.
  • CU, Group II, Cultural and Presentation Program, Series 5, Committees and Panels for Performing Arts, Box 100, Folder 1, Music Advisory Panel Meetings, June 12, 1956.
  • CU, Group II, Cultural Presentations Program, Series 1, General and Historical Files, BOX 47, Folder 1, February 21, 1956; March 6, 7 and15, 1956.
  • CU, Group II, Cultural Presentations Program, Series 1, General and Historical Files, BOX 100, Folder 100/21, Hughes to Macy, December 21, 1960; Macy to Hughes, December 29, 1960.
  • CU, Group I, Organization and Administration, Series 1, Box 9, folder 2, Performance Records G-P, 1956.
  • CU, Group I, Organization and Administration, Series 1, Box 2, folder 9, Cultural Presentations Program, Projects Completed and Approved for assistance, 1954-1966.
  • CU, Group I, Organization and Administration, Series 1, Box 8, folder 8, International Exchange Program Contract for Dizzy Gillespie, March 1956, July 1956.