Sunday, June 29, 2008

"people love jazz because they love freedom"

A piece reminiscing on the "Jazz Diplomacy" program of the Cold War, where Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and others traveled across the world (the article lists Athens, Moscow, Karachi and Cairo as a little sample) introducing non-Americans to the real American flavor of jazz.

The writer, Fred Kaplan, waxes nostalgic about the tour:

Jazz was the country’s “Secret Sonic Weapon” (as a 1955 headline in The New York Times put it) in another sense as well. The novelist Ralph Ellison called jazz an artistic counterpart to the American political system. The soloist can play anything he wants as long as he stays within the tempo and the chord changes — just as, in a democracy, the individual can say or do whatever he wants as long as he obeys the law. Willis Conover, whose jazz show on Voice of America radio went on the air in 1955 and soon attracted 100 million listeners, many of them behind the Iron Curtain, once said that people “love jazz because they love freedom.”

The anecdote he includes about Athens is particularly striking in the contrast between the way real ambassadors and so-called "Jazz Ambassadors" are received:

The band’s first stop was Athens, where students had recently stoned the local headquarters of the United States Information Service in protest of Washington’s support for Greece’s right-wing dictatorship. Yet many of those same students greeted Gillespie with cheers, lifting him on their shoulders, throwing their jackets in the air and shouting: “Dizzy! Dizzy!”

Kaplan's interpretation seems to be that we no longer do things quite the way we used to - America is no longer propogating its art and culture to its advantage so strategically. (He doesn't discuss the obvious implications that new technologies have for a tour like this, either - for example, anyone with YouTube can see a performance of an American musician in his own living room, so some of the work of this jazz tour is already being done without any government meddling).

But in today’s world what would “something like this” be?

Jazz was a natural for the cold war. Soviet citizens who hated their government found anything American alluring, especially jazz (and later rock), which was such a heady contrast to Moscow’s stale official culture. The same was true, to a degree, in some of the nonaligned nations, which were under pressure from both superpowers to sway toward one side or the other.

He seems to identify the content of the program - what kind of music is being sent abroad - as the big difference between then and now. But for me, the real crux of the difference was expressed in this bit:

Armstrong canceled a 1957 trip to Moscow after President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to send federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce school-integration laws. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said. “It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.”

Administration officials feared that this broadside, especially from someone so genial as “Ambassador Satchmo,” would trigger a diplomatic disaster. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told Attorney General Herbert Brownell that the situation in Arkansas was “ruining our foreign policy.” Two weeks later, facing pressure from many quarters, Eisenhower sent the National Guard to Arkansas. Armstrong praised the move and agreed to go on a concert tour of South America.

The jazzmen’s independence made some officials nervous. But the shrewder diplomats knew that on balance it helped the cause.

I sincerely cannot fathom such a sequence of events taking place now. Perhaps that is just because of the reason Kaplan named - jazz just is not as famous now as it was 50 years ago, and the musicians don't have the following to force the government into taking any sort of action. It's possible. But there are other musicians who have their own brand - I am sure you can think of 2 without even blinking. Some of those musicians might not be admirable representatives of the United States, but others could very well be, and I still can't imagine the government putting those individuals in a position where they might have a platform to deliver a message other than the scripted government line. And maybe more importantly, it's possible they wouldn't want to represent the U.S. government.

Our government is, at this point, considered a lying organization. What musician would want to carry that torch? It is no longer a matter of reconciling the good things you see the government doing - e.g. fighting Communism - with the bad things - e.g. neglecting school integration - and ensuring that the balance is positive. It is now a matter of swallowing your objections to the government's infringing on civil liberties through new 'national security policies', mistreating and perhaps torturing detainees, starting an elective war in Iraq based on a fabricated narrative of WMDs, and doing all of it wrapped in the mantel of good warring against evil. The Bush administration itself recognizes this by now, I am sure, and chooses not to enroll popular figures to perform on its behalf. And those figures know that their popularity could only suffer if they represented the government.

The idea that people in foreign countries must learn to separate American culture from American foreign policy in order to develop a warmer attitude towards the United States makes sense. However, American music and styles and slang are being exported. You can watch Friends every day on MBC in Riyadh. The problem is not that "other people don't know enough about how likable Americans are". The problem is that we have bad policies. So, until the policies are updated, I think the bands can stay at home.

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