Jazz Degraded the Culture of ... Communism

Richard Stanley

Sneaky 'ebony and ivory' harmonic bastards ('they' know who 'they' are):

The State Department hoped that showcasing popular American music around the globe would not only introduce audiences to American culture, but also win them over as ideological allies in the cold war. The Brubeck Quartet’s 12 performances in Poland were some of the first in a long tour that would never stray far from the perimeter of the Soviet Union. They passed through Eastern Europe, the Middle East, central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Other tours would allow jazz legends like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to trumpet American values in newly decolonized states in Africa and Asia. The idea was always the same: keep communism at bay by whatever means possible.

In Poland, audiences were used to more formal, Soviet-approved culture like ballet and opera. Early jazz had flourished in the country in the 1930s, but after the Soviet takeover following the end of the war, jazz was forbidden from the airwaves, believed inferior to the high arts that had government support. An underground scene resisted this repression; they tuned in, when they could, to “Jazz Hour,” a shortwave radio show broadcast by Voice of America. Brubeck’s performances — the first of any American jazz band behind the iron curtain — were an exceedingly rare opportunity for Poles to see jazz played live.

The response to Brubeck’s first concert, performed in Szczecin on the border between Poland and East Germany, was rapturous. “It was uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time,” Darius Brubeck, now in his 70s, tells TIME. “Our whole era of propaganda and demonization just evaporated in seconds.”

His father, who was moved by the dedication of Polish jazz fans, would often address the crowd at his performances. “No dictatorship can tolerate jazz,” he said. “It is the first sign of a return to freedom.”

The State Department had first realized jazz’s potential as a cold war weapon just three years before the Brubeck family found themselves in Poland. “In that moment, the U.S. and the USSR both saw themselves as models for developing nations,” says Penny Von Eschen, a professor at Cornell and an expert on the jazz ambassador program. “They were in fierce competition to win the hearts and minds of the world.” Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a congressman with close ties to the jazz community, first suggested sending jazz musicians around the world on state-sponsored tours in 1955. No time was wasted, and by 1956 the first jazz ambassador, Dizzy Gillespie, was blowing America’s horn in the Balkans and the Middle East. “America’s secret weapon is a blue note in a minor key,” proclaimed the New York Times.

Gillespie’s first tour was a great success, and provided the blueprint for a whole host more in the following decades. Jazz bands had toured abroad independently for years, but State Department support allowed the music to reach geopolitically strategic locations lacking real profit incentive.

The music of jazz, which was structured around improvisation within a set of commonly agreed-upon boundaries, was a perfect metaphor for America in the eyes of the State Department. Here was a music of democracy and freedom. What the bands looked like was important too. “The racism and violence within the U.S. was getting international exposure,” says Von Eschen. “For President Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, this was a great embarrassment.” By sending bands comprised of black and white musicians to play together around the world, the State Department could engineer an image of racial harmony to offset the bad press about racism at home.


Apparently none of these guys were never sent to the People's Republic of Santa Monica though.

I once got to see Dizzy Gillespie, at the end of his career, play at the Vine Street Bar and Grill in Hollywood. Maybe that explains ...