1955: Legendary Radio Corporation
of America chairman David Sarnoff calls a conference in Midtown
Manhattan. He presents a ten-ounce turntable, which seems ordinary
except for its portability and the fact that the United States
government has already tossed several of these record players
out of military planes. Sarnoff’s introduction is serious.
There is no dispute over sound theory. Packaged with various pro-American
recordings, some members of the federal government believe that
lightweight phonographs can help win the Cold War. The self-powered
players are the latest device to further American empire (James).
Sarnoff, the visionary who helped launch television in 1939 –
“Now we add sight to sound,” he said – was,
in 1956, more a stargazer than a prophet when adding flight to
sound (qtd. in Casey and Werner 88). The conference on the skydiving
phonograph, though, pointed to a much larger postwar theme: the
emphasis on sound in foreign policy. Long before the American
military serenaded Manuel Noriega with ear-splitting rock tunes,
the government spent millions blanketing foreign nations with
more soothing sounds of America through radio programs, live performances,
and library recordings.
The sudden jump in funding for government sponsored cultural programs
showcased a new commitment made after World War II. From 1947
through 1951, an average of $37 million was set aside for cultural
endeavors, with a 1951 high of $57 million
and a 1948 low of $14 million. The average from 1952 through 1956
was $109 million. These figures, while calculated separately as
budget items, represent part of a broader foreign policy that
included military and diplomatic resources. The increased funds
available for government sponsored cultural events reveal a great
concern with how other nations viewed the United States. “In
recent years,” wrote Franz Joseph in As Others See Us,
“the social scientists have given much attention to the
‘images’ that each nation has of other nations”
1955: “Coke, Boogie-Woogie,
and Gum Not So Bad” states the New York Times (Raymond).
An official visit to the United States by a Polish observer appears
to work. Jerzy Putrament publishes a popular article in Poland
saying that the widespread denunciation of American goods is misguided.
He thinks that many commercial items in America have no connection
to a capitalist conspiracy (as he had been taught) and everything
to do with their pleasurable effects. The Pole proposes that Coca-Cola
be used in his nation’s campaign against alcoholism. “It
Isn’t the Gum” – a tongue-in-cheek, op-ed piece
printed a few days later hopes that gum users in New York and
in Moscow will build on Putrament’s enlightenment and stop
leaving their non-conspiratorial chewing gum around the subways.
Inviting foreign nationals to witness the evils of capitalism
first hand was part of changing the international view of America.
Following the collapse of the anti-fascist alliance and the onset
of the Cold War, the Soviet Union restarted its criticism of America
which had been suspended during the two countries’ war coalition.
In 1945 and 1946, L’Humanité, the official
organ of the French Communist Party which was faithful to the
Soviet stance, portrayed the promise of Hollywood with extensive
coverage of the visits of Rita Hayworth and other American icons.
Abruptly, in 1947, the United States appeared
in the paper’s pages as a failing imperial power on the
precipice of social and economic upheaval. All things American
were derided and, according to Cora Sol Goldstein, “American
cinema and the American film industry were a particular target,
and Hollywood was accused of introducing American ideology and
values through entertainment” (19-20). 2.
The relentless Soviet criticisms of the capitalist country were,
by and large, dismissed as propaganda and Putremant’s revelation,
while entertaining, did not signify any great victory. It was
taken for granted that communist and capitalist countries fundamentally
disagreed on basic social issues. The one censure that stuck,
though, was the charge of racism. The Soviet Union and her allies
pointed to segregation and the violence that accompanied it as
evidence of an unenlightened America.
Of course, with pictures of tortured black bodies and Josephine
Baker decrying a new slavery in the South, communist media accessed
a seemingly endless stream of material to present to their readers.
Clearly, this was not the American way of life that the United
States government wanted foreigners to see. Yet, there it was,
not only in communist sponsored publications, but in the popular
presses in India, Mexico, Greece, Haiti, and Great Britain; the
United States was being characterized worldwide through racial
conflict. To counter this image, the American government sponsored
a host of cultural activities (radio programs, libraries, concerts,
and plays) that presented American achievement rather than American
failure (Goldstein 21).
Remembering 1956: “Adam Powell
surprised me,” Dizzy Gillespie later recalled, “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 and Fraser 413).
The United States government was relatively new to artist support,
yet the international cultural invasion of the 1950s by American
artists was largely inconceivable without federal assistance.
Prior to the Cold War, World’s Fairs, Expositions, and shows
for American servicemen were about the only foreign venues for
which state assistance for the arts was available (Kammen 793-803).
On the domestic front, attitudes toward government cultural funding
had changed drastically during the Depression. The first sustained
venture in state support for the arts took place under the auspices
of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Starting in 1932 and
ending in 1943, the WPA supported many cultural undertakings in
an effort to employ artists as social relief for a nation suffering
an epic economic crisis.
The end of the unemployment dilemma, helped
largely by the war effort, ensured an end to the WPA. When government
funding for the arts reemerged in the post-war era, its object
was far less altruistic. Cultural productions developed into one
of the nation’s preferred methods to vaunt overseas. The
result? Federal funding for the arts became a focal point for
the debate over an appropriate postwar American image for foreign
"What then is the American, this new man?" asked St.
John de Crevecoeur in the eighteenth century. This question demanded
an answer, again, as the United States looked to become a global
leader in the mid-twentieth century. Congressman Adam Clayton
Powell, Jr., representative from New York City’s Harlem,
had an answer: Dizzy Gillespie.
By 1956, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie had long since
risen from his impoverished South Carolina childhood and was recognized
as one of the leaders of the recent musical revolution that spawned
a new form of jazz called bebop. Gillespie may already have been
an international superstar, yet the proposal for the trumpeter
to front a jazz tour on the behalf of the United States government
was daring. With the South in disarray over segregation, the suggestion
that a black man represent the nation seemingly would not pass.
For years, Powell made little headway when pleading with the Eisenhower
Administration for his own worldwide speaking tour in defense
of American racial progress. In 1956, he temporarily transferred
his own goal to music and Gillespie. The Congressman’s idea
was not without some precedent – African American baritone
William Warfield had performed in Cairo in 1955 thanks to support
from the federal government. A jazz musician, however, was an
entirely different proposition (Hamilton 290-294).
Music, part of the country’s Cold War propaganda from the
start, had an interesting beginning as an American symbol. When
the Department of State looked for performers from New Orleans,
its Symphony was chosen time and again. If, in the supposed birthplace
of jazz, musicians such as the enormously popular Louis Armstrong
were ignored, securing sufficient support for a Gillespie tour
was certainly going to be troublesome. Classical music and classically
trained musicians were the initial cultural cold warriors of choice,
ensuring that the majority of the performers (with exceptions
such as Warfield) on those early government sponsored tours were
By the mid-1950s, it was clear, though, that American classical
musicians were fighting a losing battle – having great orchestras
succeeded only in placing American culture upon a crowded mantle.
Asserting American superiority in art music (classical music),
competing against a hallowed European institution, was not really
impressing many foreigners. At best, the country’s
art musicians would be applauded for their skill, but, in this
arena, the American orchestra was viewed suspiciously by Europeans
nurturing prejudice about American cultural inferiority. Americans
performing within, or even excelling within, what was clearly
a European-dominated tradition was not great promotional material.
Classical music would help portray the United States as civilized
by a Western standard; it could not offer up something widely
understood as American to the world. 4.
Jackson Lears wrote that “the essence of hegemony is not
manipulation but legitimation” (50); the story of American
music at mid-century documents the nation’s quest for validation
in light of its new status as a global leader. The federal government
was slow to comprehend that jazz, particularly swing, was widely
understood as an American icon. There was no disputing this fact.
Made fashionable by American troops and by
privately financed performances, foreigners turned toward American
popular music and jazz en masse after Word War II. Jazz
had been the sound of the Depression, and its fans tracked band
roster changes as sports enthusiasts tracked the players on their
favorite teams. During the war, swing music evoked visions of
“‘home’ values,” becoming a symbol “of
a war to defend the American way” (Erenberg 234-5). At home
and abroad, jazz became increasingly synonymous with American
values – particularly freedom. 5.
Foreigners were thus annoyed after the war when, time and again,
they requested jazz performers from the United States and, instead,
found themselves listening to groups like the New York Philharmonic
(Wagnleitner iv). When the State Department finally recognized
the broad appeal of jazz as an inherently American art form –
deciding in 1955 to emphasize “real Americana” –
the face and the sound of government sponsored music tours changed
(“Remote Lands”). Classical musicians were no longer
the exclusive representatives of America and a host of other musical
styles gained access to federal sponsorship. (Alden; Sheed).
The evening of May 9, 1956, displayed the nation’s newfound
musical diversity that was exported overseas. That night there
were five government funded concerts, three of which presented
the usual classical fare – the Los Angeles Philharmonic
in Bangkok, pianist Eugene Isthmian in Japan, and Robert Shaw’s
Chorale in Cologne – while the other two presented the new
amalgamation – Native American Tom Two Arrows in Burma and
Dizzy Gillespie’s band in Belgrade (“ANTA”).
February 1956: “DIZZY
TO ROCK INDIA” — a short article with an exciting
headline ran in the New York Times in February 1956 announcing
that “Dizzy Gillespie and his band will make a ten-week
tour of India, the Near East and the Balkans beginning in April.”
The tour will be the first foreign visit of jazz music sponsored
by the American National Theatre and Academy (a group which recommends
“artistically qualified” entertainers to the State
Department for federally funded international tours). Gillespie’s
troupe will consist of about twenty performers. 6.
The Department of State thought better of pushing Dizzy Gillespie
and his band out of the back of a plane, but, like the skydiving
phonograph, the Gillespie tour started with a big crash. Just
before the troupe was to fly to Bombay, tensions between India
and the United States resulted in concert cancellations (“Dizzy
to Rock”). Officially, Jawaharlal Nehru refused to sacrifice
his policy of nonalignment. But the Indian leader was particularly
upset by the continued U.S. military aid to Pakistan, so he spoiled
the State Department’s plans for Gillespie (Shipton 281;
Gillespie and Fraser 417). If, as Penny Von Eschen writes, the
State Department tours “tried to make critics of U.S. policy
identify with America or the idea of America independently of
American policies,” Nehru saw through the cultural game
that the Americans were playing — rightly linking American
foreign policy to the Gillespie show (“Satchmo” 172).
Before the tour even started, Gillespie got a good feel for what
he later called the “political implications” of his
trip (Gillespie and Fraser 417).
The bandleader remembered that American papers criticized Nehru
as “ungrateful” (417). After all, he turned away a
free concert. Meanwhile, the State Department quickly rescheduled
the group to start in Abadan, Iran, a city close to the Iraqi
border (Shipton 281). The India incident was the first of several
skirmishes that set the tone for the musicians. As the jazz group
traveled to places harboring valuable natural and military resources,
several of the host countries expressed displeasure with the make-up
of Gillespie’s troupe.
The trumpeter’s big band had been sporadically employed
during the late 1940s and the early 1950s, so its personnel was
constantly changing. There was nothing unusual in the fact that
Gillespie had to choose several musicians before his 1956 State
Department tour. But Gillespie’s band, typically staffed
by black men, was now a remarkable, to use its leader’s
terminology, “‘American assortment’ of blacks,
whites, males, females, Jews and Gentiles” (Gillespie and
Fraser 414). While there is scant evidence, there is little doubt
that the State Department greatly influenced the band’s
new look (Shipton 280). The addition of white musicians, altoist
Phil Woods and trombonist Rod Levitt, and also women, singer Dotty
Saulter and trombonist/arranger Melba Liston, were most noticeable.
That Gillespie recalled the assembly over twenty years later revealed
just how unusual it was for his group (Gillespie and Fraser 414-16).
The 1956 version of the Gillespie band, like any group of mixed
racial composition, would have stirred disapproval in America,
especially in the South. But a greater controversy erupted abroad
over the women in the group and the religious affiliation of one
of the musicians. During a layover in the Cairo airport, American
racial strife was the last thing on the minds of Gillespie and
Rod Levitt. After the band was served a free drink, Levitt remembered,
“they turned all the lights out and started showing a movie”
(qtd. in Gillespie and Fraser 416-17). The film was a virulent
anti-Israeli propaganda film. Gillespie, who laughed at almost
anything, turned to his Jewish trombonist and joked, “How
do you like it?” (417).
Levitt’s troubles did not stop there. For several hours,
it looked as if Pakistani officials were not going to allow him
to leave their country because he wrote “Jewish” on
his visa. The band, set to leave for Syria, impatiently awaited
resolution. The State Department defused the situation by refiling
Levitt’s visa, listing him as a Christian the Gillespie
band left Karachi together (Gillespie and Fraser 414-16).
Far more radical for Muslim nations, though, was the independence
of the two women in the group. Melba Liston remembered a stream
of questions regarding gender dynamics in the United States: “I
had lots of women come to me in the Middle East tours to find
out how life was over here for women and how in the world I could
be running around there traveling and single” (qtd. in Gillespie
and Fraser 415-16). The relative freedom that the two women presented
on and off stage was a primary focus of their audience. No doubt
their accomplishments affected their female listeners who were
confused and awed at the situation and wanted to learn more. There
existed a clear disjunction between the interests of foreign listeners
and the interests of the foreign press which reported on race
in America when covering the musical act.
April 1956: “Professor Joins
the Gillespie Band,” reports the New York Times.
Dr. Marshall Stearns, a professor at Hunter College who teaches
a jazz course at the New School, takes over the role of music
educator on the Gillespie tour.
Three years after the inaugural jazz concerts, Leonard Bernstein,
on tour in the Soviet Union, introduced Igor Stravinsky’s
Le Sacre du Printemps as a work central to the musical
revolution of the early twentieth century. For years, Soviet leaders
slandered Stravinsky’s work as academic and bourgeois, so
Bernstein’s talks, which preceded an actual performance
of the work by the New York Philharmonic, were not welcome. By
the time the New York Philharmonic reached Leningrad, the New
York Times said “the request that he [Bernstein] say
nothing about Stravinsky was transmitted through Americans from
Russian sources” (“Bernstein Drops”). This was
not the first time that the famous musician was quieted during
this trip. A week earlier in Moscow, Bernstein’s copious
program notes for his own Symphony No. 2 – based
on W. H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety, a commentary “on
the search for happiness in Western society” – were
omitted from the program (“Bernstein Work”).
Despite regular censure in Russia, Bernstein continually lectured
about music during the New York Philharmonic’s summer concerts
abroad (Frankel). In his role as a music teacher, the conductor
continued in a long tradition of art music analysis. In 1956,
Dizzy Gillespie could not benefit from centuries of jazz scholarship
because there was no such thing. But the trumpeter was one of
a handful of jazz innovators in the relatively short history of
the musical style. This fact did not salvage the role of jazz
lecturer for Gillespie in the eyes of the State Department (“Professor”).
Early on in the tour, the State Department made certain that Gillespie
would teach jazz through performance, not oration (Gillespie and
Fraser 418; “Gillespie’s Band”).
One very clear purpose of the Gillespie band was to present a
program illuminative of jazz’s development. It is quite
remarkable, then, that Dizzy Gillespie, recognized as a musical
modernizer for his contribution to bebop in the 1940s, was replaced
by a professor of English (“Professor”; “Gillespie’s
Band”). Not only was he humorous, entertaining, and eloquent,
Gillespie had lived through most of jazz history. Seemingly, the
famed trumpeter was a better choice than a New York professor
whose status was clinched by an impressive collection of jazz
paraphernalia and a jazz history course that he started teaching
in 1951 at the New School (“Institute of Jazz Studies”).
No doubt Oxford University Press, the publisher behind Stearns’s
1956 book The Story of Jazz, was thrilled by the selection
of their author to such a visible post. Less than a month into
the tour, Stearns was telling the audience all about jazz before
Gillespie and company came on stage and played the history to
Stearns’s appointment, especially in light of Bernstein’s
role with the Philharmonic, replaced an empowered minority with
a white man. Reading Stearns’s selection purely in terms
of race, though, distracts from the very important issue surrounding
jazz and federally funded concerts. At the time of Gillespie’s
government tour, jazz was beginning to shed its image as the “unwanted
stepchild of the arts” (Korsky 112). Schools and classes
for jazz sprung up at a surprising rate both in the United States
and in Europe. More importantly, the bebop revolution had ensured
that jazz, already a popular art form, developed into an intellectual
one as well.
Swing, the predominant sound of jazz in the 1930s and a most popular
style in its heyday, was music created for immediate consumption
through commercial channels and was directly dependant upon audience
approval. Bebop overturned this relationship and built its reputation
on a divide between artist and fan. Gillespie, along with Charlie
Parker, Thelonius Monk, and others, fashioned a confusing array
of innovations and played them to often puzzled listeners (Deveaux
3-8, 20-27, 273-294; Gillespie and Fraser 190). Swing
had benefited from the likes of white performers like Woody Herman
and Glen Miller, but bebop, much like ragtime, was fundamentally
a black musical innovation (Deveaux 20-27; Tucker xii, 3-27; Gerard
314-15). Removed from the dance halls of Harlem where the big
bands wailed, jazz became the more reclusive art of a small ensemble
within the poorly lit clubs of New York’s Fifty-Second Street.
Bebop marginalized the role of jazz in American culture by making
it avant-garde and ultimately secured a future for jazz through
the institutionalization that accompanied jazz’s status
as an object for serious study. 7.
The creation of centers like the Institute for Jazz Studies (founded
by Marshall Stearns in 1952 and taken over by Rutgers University
in 1966) and the Lenox School of Jazz brought Czech composer Anton
Dvorak’s 1893 statement that “Negro melodies…must
be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition
to be developed in the United States” closer to reality
(“Institute”; qtd. in Murray 22). Businessman Norman
Granz captured the development by promoting the aptly titled series
Jazz at the Philharmonic. Dr. Stearns was chosen to lecture during
Gillespie’s tour to add, according to a 1956 New York
Times piece, “a highbrow touch” (“Gillespie’s
Band”). When the government began its Cold War jazz crusade,
jazz was chosen not only for its American pedigree and its seeming
denial of American racial conflict but also because it was fast
becoming recognized as a scholarly form (Von Eschen, “Satchmo”
164; Gerard xi-xx).
June 1956: United States Ambassador
to Turkey, Donald Heath, senses that something is wrong, but as
embassy security summons him to the stage area, he isn’t
sure what. Heath approaches the famed trumpeter and asks: “Mr.
Gillespie, there’s supposed to be a jam session. What’s
happening? Why don’t you want to play?” Gillespie
should be on stage performing with his band and local Ankaran
musicians. Instead, he is seething backstage. When he entered
the embassy earlier, Gillespie noticed a large crowd, mainly children,
trying to get into the show. As the Turkish band took the stage,
the trumpeter clambered up the reviewing stand which allowed him
to reach over the railing and to sign autographs. From this vantage
point, he witnessed a young boy scale the fence of the embassy,
only to be immediately hurled back by security. Now, Gillespie
explains to Heath, he will not play until the children are allowed
to see the concert. “You see those people out there?”
Gillespie responds to the ambassador. “We’re trying
to gain their friendship, not these people, big shots here with
the tickets” (Gillespie and Fraser 422).
“GILLESPIE REFUSES TO PLAY FOR THE ELITE” reports
one paper the day after Gillespie’s standoff in the embassy
(Gillespie and Fraser 422). That day, a musician’s idealism
proved stronger than policy Ambassador Heath ordered the guards
to let the children in. Gillespie’s antics did not cloak
his basic purpose. Time and again, he placed the concerns of the
“common people” – those who were priced out
of his shows a – on par or above those who could pay to
attend his concerts. In Dacca, Gillespie repeated the demands
he made in Turkey. In Damascus, he paused the show precisely at
sundown so that the audience could break their Ramadan fast with
him backstage. With characteristic political tact, Gillespie presented
a resolute, yet affable face to U.S. officials to ensure that
his concerts reached the foreigners who he thought should witness
American music. Gillespie explained five years after his 1956
tour that his private shows abroad were about money; the government-sponsored
shows were about the people (An Electrifying).
The gulf dividing jazz performers and the Department of State
did not subside in future years. Officials of the American government
catered to the leaders of other countries, and it was only the
musicians themselves who espoused a more widespread cultural experience.
Seven years later after Gillespie’s inaugural tour, the
State Department still had not altered their policies, and Duke
Ellington was frustrated by the elite composition of his audiences
during his government sponsored tour of the oil-rich Middle East
(Von Eschen, “Satchmo” 171). The jazz tours were part
of a diplomatic package, used as propaganda, incentive, and reward,
to convince foreign leaders of American solidarity. Many of the
sponsored musicians saw matters differently.
July 1956: From the New York
Times: “If Congress goes along with the Senate Appropriations
Committee, foreigners may come to think of Americans as a nation
of chorus-singing 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”).
Five months before the article “Biceps and Choirs”
appeared in the Times, Autherine Lucy was admitted as
the first African American student to the University of Alabama
while the black community in Montgomery was in the midst of a
now famous bus boycott. Studying the debate over the early jazz
tours makes the present-day reader squeamish. I wonder if the
unnamed author who contributed “Biceps and Choirs”
understood the implications of the Congressional debate. Looking
at the context in which the deliberations took place, it is hard
to imagine that the reporter was oblivious. Gillespie and Armstong
were not the only jazz musicians to receive federal funds for
international concerts. Benny Goodman, for example, traveled as
well, yet the famed trumpeters’s names were the ones emphasized
by opponents of government jazz programs. The discussion over
funding jazz made clear that jazz itself was not the issue; the
argument revolved around the race of the performers. So while
Gillespie enjoyed the privilege of representing the supposed success
of diversity in the United States to foreign nationals in 1956,
certain members of Congress worked to remove his African American
face from the program.
Senator Barry Goldwater wrote to Assistant Secretary of State,
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 peoples
abroad. (032 Tucson Kids Band, Letter to Robert C. Hill, 19 April
Goldwater could not believe that “a negro band leader”
(who, by implication, did not contribute to the “musical
life of our country”) was chosen over a local group from
his home state of Arizona, the Tucson Kids Band. The $100,000
face of America that Goldwater wanted foreigners to see was youthful,
from his district, and white.
Government sponsored cultural programs aimed to offset reports
of the exact kind of race-based thinking embedded in Goldwater’s
response to the Gillespie tour. Reports covering concerts of black
musicians who had been sent abroad prior to Gillespie’s
inaugural jazz tour demonstrated the concerted effort of State
Department officials to track the perception of race in America.
A statement from the American Embassy in Cairo regarding the 1955
Egyptian tour of Porgy & Bess stated that “the
impact achieved outside of the theater by the personalities of
the cast can easily be rated as excellent. USIS arranged three
major receptions for the cast in Cairo: one primarily for Egyptian
theater and radio leaders…; another for the press; and a
third for cultural, social, and civic leaders” (qtd. in
511.003/1-3155, Report From American Embassy Cairo, To State Dept
/USIA, 31 Jan. 1955). These receptions evoked a “highly
enthusiastic acclaim” (qtd. in 511.003/1-3155, Report From
American Embassy Cairo, To State Dept /USIA, 31 Jan. 1955). Translations
of local newspaper accounts included in the file show the kind
of influence the State Department expected:
1) “The members of the group showed unwillingness to discuss
racial discrimination in the United States. They however pointed
out that such discrimination is being gradually eliminated in
the United States.” (qtd. in 511.003/1-3155, Al Guil
Al Guedid, 17 January 1955).
2) “The American negro opera now called ‘Porgy and
Bess,’ has interpreted this living community into music
that now portrays the suffering, poverty, hardship and discrimination
that is the lot of the negroes in America…Negroes attach
great importance and significance to the recent rulings of the
American Supreme Court giving the equal right to education to
both whites and negroes.” (qtd. in 511.003/1-3155, “Negro
Screams on the Stage of the Opera House,” Al Ahram,
5 January 1955).
The gradual elimination of racism, or at least an idea that
racial discrimination was waning, was the message that the State
Department wished to convey through cultural tours that included
black Americans. Dizzy Gillespie and his band operated in this
environment during their 1956 tour.
Federal support for black musicians did not start (or stop) with
jazz performances (511.003/1-3155). But, in 1956, the international
demand for and popularity of jazz performers made them the focal
point of the federal funding dispute.
Gillespie was acutely aware of the racial performance that he
led in the Middle East. In true minstrel show tradition, the United
States government “blacked up” when sending Gillespie
abroad. When the State Department asked to brief Gillespie before
the tour, he refused: “They laid it all right in front of
me, and I sort’ve liked the idea of representing America,
but I wasn’t going over to apologize for the racist policies
of America.” Gillespie explained to his wife, “I’ve
got three hundred years of briefing. I know what they’ve
done to us, and I’m not gonna make any excuses. If they
ask me questions, I’m gonna answer them as honestly as I
can” (Gillespie and Fraser 414).
The government’s refusal to allow eminent black intellectuals
such as W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson the right to travel, assigned
musicians like Gillespie and Louis Armstrong the “official”
international spokespeople for black Americans (Von Eschen, Race
167). Jazz, though, had brought different privileges to the
two generations of trumpeters. For Armstrong and an older generation
of jazz musicians, performing often represented a way out of a
life in manual labor, while, for Gillespie and his cohorts, becoming
a performer was akin to becoming a doctor – it was a respectable
profession (DeVeaux 46-50; Tucker 28-46). In the 1950s, Armstrong
proved a far more vocal critic of events than Gillespie. The elder
jazz statesman gained notoriety in government circles for canceling
a state sponsored tour of the Soviet Union due to his disgust
over 1957 events in Little Rock.
Earlier, in 1956, Gillespie lead the way with a more muted tone,
one that, despite the antagonistic stance he struck prior to the
tour, appeared to gel with State Department objectives. On the
racial implications of his band, he wrote:
They [foreign audiences] 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,…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.” (Gillespie and Fraser
Gillespie certainly knew that the United States had problems.
The bandleader, along with Ella Fitzgerald and others, was picked
up backstage at a Texas concert for gambling before his international
tour – an arrest clearly motivated by racism (Shipton 266).
But his success, measured in dollars and by the white musicians
in his band, indicated to Gillespie that things were, indeed,
improving. Nonetheless, the irony in Gillespie’s message
to President Eisenhower at the close of his 1956 tour jumps at
the modern reader: “I urge you to do all in your power to
continue exploiting this valuable form of American expression
of which we are so proud” (“Diz Set”). Gillespie
meant “exploit” in a most positive way. But by the
early 1960s, many black nationalists thought that Gillespie and
his fellow “U.S. jambassadors” sounded too much like
Uncle Tom and too little like Nat Turner (Von Eschen, Race
It is a familiar debate. But just as Frederick Douglass changed
his mind about minstrelsy in the 1840s and 1850s – first,
calling blackface performers “the filthy scum of white society”
and, later, stating that minstrel songs “awaken the sympathies
for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root, grow
and flourish” – the role of the jazz musicians and
the State Department needs to be reevaluated in a new light (qtd.
in Lott 4, 15; Douglass 40). Were the State Department jazz tours
emblematic of a larger push in national government for a gradual
easing of racial tensions in the nation, or merely an interesting
footnote to the Cold War? Situating black musicians as actors
for foreign policy had domestic ramifications. Not only did the
United States government publicly acknowledge the contribution
of black culture to American history and contemporary society,
the use of jazz contributed to a then raging debate over nation,
race, and representation.
1957: An article defends the musical
politics that the United States is promoting through state sponsorship
of jazz. It is believed to be so influential that communist governments
might soon be “more friendly to the United States.”
Donald B. Cook of the State Department stands up for the Gillespie
tours – by this time there had been two – stating
that “the $141,000 invested by the Government in tours by
Dizzy Gillespie’s jazz band…had helped to offset reports
of radical prejudice in the United States” by showcasing
a preeminent black American (“U.S. Finds”).
Gillespie was hardly a pawn of United States foreign policy. He
pointed out an important fact about his situation: “We didn’t
have to lay out any money to support it and didn’t have
to worry about jobs because all the jobs were preset” (Gillespie
and Fraser 414). A government tour was the kind of institutional
support that only a few fortunate musicians would ever receive
– Gillespie could not lose playing for the State Department.
He was paid a prorated weekly salary of $2,150 (which exceeded
that of the President of the United States) whether one or 100,000
tickets sold (032 Tuscon Kids Band, Congressional Record).
Ultimately, the $16,458 worth of ticket sales did not come close
to covering the price tag for the tour which was over $100,000.
Yet the government hardly bought themselves a Cold War operative.
The back and forth between Gillespie and his State Department
handlers makes it difficult to read his tour as pure propaganda.
If anything, the tour mirrored the divisiveness regarding race
and class back in the States.
Clearly, the State Department did not sponsor jazz musicians to
make money but rather to make a point. Jazz was a “sonic
weapon” for the United States government (Belair). Cheaper
than researching a new military machine, jazz was sent on the
near impossible mission to battle the perception of the United
States as a racist society. In the midst of black protests and
Southern response, State Department officials stood by their support
of jazz and continued the program at a time when the federal government
is often understood to have been aloof on racial issues (“U.S.
We need more scholarship that researches the intertwined role
of politics and culture in the 1950s. A host of issues revolving
around foreign policy, the cultural status of an art form, the
individual musicians, foreign listeners, race, gender, and religion
surrounded the joint venture of Gillespie and the American government
international policy. To say that jazz was manipulated in the
American quest for global resources is trite. Of course, American
performers were sent to regions harboring crucial economic and
military resources. But what happened there, as Reinhold Wagnleitner
demonstrated in Austria, is a more complex story. Insofar as the
United States was definable as a culture in the postwar era, it
was defined by jazz, which was achieving new heights in the cultural
hierarchy. And this, especially for foreigners, meant that American
cultural life greatly depended on African Americans – a
remarkable idea that was hotly contested, more at home than abroad.
Gillespie wired President Eisenhower after his tour: “Our
trip through the Middle-East proved conclusively that our interracial
group was powerfully effective against red propaganda” (“Dizzy
Urges”; Von Eschen, Race 178). Christian Herter,
acting Secretary of State, agreed, telling critics in 1957 that
the government would continue to pay top dollar to showcase the
very best of American culture abroad (“U.S. Defends”).
“The language of diplomacy,” wrote one foreign music
critic, “ought to be translated into a score for bop trumpet”
(“Indians Dizzy”). Gillespie started the negotiations
on March 23, 1956, the day of the first foreign concert of jazz
sponsored by the American government.
1. For a table on government funding for cultural
programs, see Table 1 in
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2. See also, Wagnleitner, ix-xv, 1-7.
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3. Michael Kammen considers government funding
during the 1950s to be insignificant stating that the U.S. has
no cultural policy until the establishment of the NEA in 1965,
but notes “an awakening sense of popular pride in American
cultural activities” in Cold War America (801). This view
misses the link between government funding and the “discovery”
of American cultural producers.
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4. Wagnleitner superbly illuminates this contest:
during the war, the National Socialists used Beethoven’s
Fifth Symphony to demonstrate German genius; later the
BBC employed it for their propaganda broadcasts in Germany; American
orchestras played it to display their cultural maturity; lastly,
communist politicians utilized it to claim the mantle as the legitimate
heirs of the European humanistic tradition. See especially 194.
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5. By 1949, the New York Herald Tribune
had declared that jazz was one of the “most exportable commodities
– second, perhaps, only to dollars” (qtd. in Wagnleitner
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6. Gillespie’s name was selected as a result
of a combination of forces that open the way for his inaugural
jazz tour. Changing ideas about the significance and stature of
jazz at home and abroad play a big role. There was also, of course,
the authorized process set by the Department of State. This decision-making
process for state backed foreign tours is rather arbitrary. One
connection to the right political figure – especially someone
with pull in the Department of State – and the sanctioned
procedure quickly turned into a show. Nonetheless, the official
procedure employed the following steps. An artist was first recommended
to the board members of the American National Theatre and Academy
(ANTA), initiating the process that would allow for monetary support
from a special Presidential fund. At the time, the ANTA board
was made up of prestigious members of the artistic community representing
all fields of American culture. Their responsibility was to determine
whether or not the proposed musicians are “artistically
qualified.” After the ANTA panel approved the group, a special
committee of delegates from various government agencies including
the State Department, named the Operations Coordinating Board,
deliberated further. At this juncture, the judgment of the Department
of State’s appropriate field post was heavily relied upon.
For example, if a tour was slated for England, the London field
office was queried about foreign relations’ advantages and
revenue potential. (511.003/2-1556, Department of State, Telegram
to Mission in Tripoli, Consulates in Algiers, Casablanca, Tangier
and Tunis, 15 February 1956; 032 Tucson Kids Band, Robert C. Hill,
Letter to Barry Goldwater, 18 April 1957.)
If approved the performers received funds from the President’s
Special International Program for Cultural Presentation, administered
by ANTA. Despite the formalities, there was never any question
that the State Department controlled the process. In Gillespie’s
case, the State Department sends a one line telegram to the American
National Theatre and Academy stating, “Dizzy Gillespie project
approved” (032 Gillespie, Douglas N. Batson, Telegram to
Mr. Robert C. Schnitzel, 25 January 1956). The amount requested
for the Presidential fund for cultural programs in 1956 was $6
million a decent sum when compared to the cost of the entire USIA
for the same year which totaled $87,336,630. (110.11-HE/9-1859,
David M. Keiser, Letter to Christian R. Herter, 18 September 1959;
“$12,650,000”; Rubin 51.)
The Department of State set the boundaries for cultural programs.
The most crucial of which was how many and what type of groups
could travel to certain regions of the world. In 1958, State Department
officials allotted five openings for cultural groups to be sent
to Europe and decided that only one could be a symphony orchestra.
The program and the selection process had several flaws that were
acknowledged at the time. The first was that performers with established
international reputations were highly favored. There was no substitute
for an artist’s prior experiences outside of the United
States in order to evaluate revenue potential abroad. A far more
severe consequence of these measures was that it ultimately relied
upon a judgment concerning who and what was deemed “artistically
qualified” (032 Tucson Kids Band, Robert C. Hill, Letter
to Barry Goldwater, 18 April 1957). From the onset of the program
until 1955, a jazz performance was never certified. Then, rather
suddenly, jazz became the focus of government funding efforts.
How and why this happens goes a long way towards uncovering the
drastic changes in who and what was to represent Cold War America.
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7. This position modifies Wagnleitner who writes
of jazz concerts representing the opposite of “‘serious’
music from the United States” (221).
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032 Gillespie, Dizzy/1-2556; General Records of the Department
Record Group 59; National Archives at College Park.
032 Tucson Kids Band/4-1957; General Records of the Department
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110.11-HE/9-1859; General Records of the Department of State,
Record Group 59; National Archives at College Park.
“$12,650,000 Asked For Atomic Ship: Eisenhower Requests
Funds to Design, Start Work on Global Cruise Vessel.” New
York Times 27 May 1955: 1.
511.003/1-3155; General Records of the Department of State, Record
Group 59; National Archives at College Park.
511.003/2-1556; General Records of the Department of State, Record
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is Offered by New York
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