John's Reviews > Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War

Satchmo Blows Up the World by Penny M. Von Eschen
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's review
Feb 14, 08

bookshelves: cultural-history, diplomacy, jazz, united-states-history
Read in February, 2008

What a terrific book this is! From the mid-1950s to the late-1980s, the State Department's Jazz Ambassadors program sent many of the US's greatest jazz musicians on good will tours throughout the world; Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins and many others were dispatched to the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia as part of a musical hearts-and-minds campaign designed to showcase American culture, generate some positively publicity about American race relations, function as Cold War propaganda, and provide a distraction from some of our more egregious international actions. Von Eschen tells this story, but she's not so much interested in chronicling the Jazz Ambassador program as she is in exploring the many contradictions that the program opened up. Tensions ran rife throughout the history of the program: between the State Dept. and the musicians (who tended to have very different ideas about how well American race relations were going, as well as about who the ideal audience for jazz was); between State and Congress (the program was continually attacked by conservative congressman, some of whom saw all arts funding as a waste of money and others of whom saw a popular art form with its origins in black culture as unworthy of representing America abroad); and between the musicians themselves (particularly between old-school and new-school jazzmen). Von Eschen uses these tensions to explore questions of culture, race, and democracy at mid-century, all while telling a great story full of fascinating characters (my favorite being King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, a jazz lover and accomplished sax and clarinet player who held all-night jam sessions with Benny Goodman). Von Eschen ultimately concludes that the Jazz Ambassador program was a success, though not in the ways the government had hoped it would be, because it allowed musicians to connect directly with their counterparts and ordinary people throughout the world (and not so much through governments as beyond governments). In the end, the Jazz Ambassadors may have practiced a headier version of democracy that the U.S. was willing to preach; it’s a story worth knowing and remembering, and it is well-told here.
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