Jazz Strategy:
Dizzy, Foreign Policy, and Government in 1956

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2005, Volume 4, Issue 1

Scott Gac
Yale University

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” (vi). 1.

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 consumption. 3.

"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 white men.

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 them.

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, Robert Hill:

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 1957)

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 421)

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 178).

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. Defends”).

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
Wagnleitner, 57.

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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 202.)

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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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Works Cited

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