Fayetteville, Arkansas – an oversized and strangely unpopulated university town in the heart of American chicken-farming country – is not where you’d expect to uncover secrets about the cold war. And yet four years ago that’s where I was, researching a documentary about American jazz musicians’ little-known role as cold war cultural ambassadors. The University of Arkansas Library houses the collected papers of J William Fulbright, a long-serving senator from Arkansas and architect of the Fulbright scholarships, the US government exchange program he founded in 1946. By some clerical quirk of fate, Fulbright’s archives include a huge number of documents relating to the US government’s “cultural presentations program” – the effort to export American culture as a weapon in the fight against Soviet communism.
The postwar years saw the entrenchment of the cold war: a direct stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union on the one hand, an indirect battle to win the allegiances of nations across the globe on the other. Propaganda was used to sell the competing ideologies of communism and democracy, and to undercut the claims of the other side. As the US Information Agency director, Theodore Streibert, proudly announced in a promotional film in 1954: “Our job is to tell the world who we are, what we stand for and what we believe in.” But, at least as far as race was concerned, the US Information Service had another job entirely.
By the mid-1950s, the civil rights movement in the US had become a major international news story. People were horrified by the brutality of Emmett Till’s lynching in 1955, and by the mob violence directed at young black students in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. It undercut America’s claims about freedom and equality. US foreign policy officials decided that America needed to create a new international narrative about its domestic racial struggle.
Their first attempts, such as a mid-50s pamphlet called The Negro in American Life depicting happy African American families living in suburban communities, were ham-fisted and dishonest. More thoughtful efforts – an exhibition about racial struggle and its origins in slavery called Unfinished Business at the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair – were shut down by outraged segregationist senators. Worse, as the civil rights protests gathered steam, the violent reaction to it became more barbaric. The Soviets could sit back and let the stories write themselves, though they did enjoy promoting this deeply ugly face of America via their Tass news agency.
I only had three days in Arkansas, but I could have spent weeks in those archives. In a subterranean reading room, I pored over photographs, diplomatic cables, artist contracts, press clippings and presidential decrees. The story they revealed was remarkable.
In 1954, President Eisenhower wrangled $5m from Congress to send US cultural groups abroad as part of the growing “public diplomacy” effort. Initially they sent symphony orchestras, theatre groups, a cappella singers and folk dancers. The Soviets responded by touring national institutions such as the Kirov and Bolshoi ballet troupes – though the country’s political claims were undermined when star performers like Nora Kovach and Rudolf Nureyev defected while abroad.
Then in 1956, Adam Clayton Powell Jr, an African American congressman from Harlem, suggested that America send its greatest jazz musicians overseas as cultural emissaries. The State Department warmed to the idea, believing that touring mixed-race jazz groups could help deflect attention from the spiralling civil rights abuses and present a uniquely American art form that the Russians couldn’t compete with. Plus, as a deluge of fanmail from Voice of America radio attests, jazz was immensely popular with international audiences.
Powell convinced his friend Dizzy Gillespie to become America’s first jazz ambassador, though the irony of the request was not lost of Gillespie. When the State Department asked him to come in for a pre-tour briefing, Gillespie responded with characteristic swagger: “I’ve had 300 years of briefing. I know what they’ve done to us.” He went on to explain: “I sort’ve liked the idea of representing America, but I wasn’t going over there to apologise for the racist policies of America.” Dizzy, like all the jazz musicians who would tour on behalf of the State Department, was torn between the feelings of patriotism and his progressive politics, of hoping that America would win the cold war, and wishing that his country would actually embrace its founding ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.
Dizzy’s tour to the Middle East, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey and Greece was a triumph and convinced State Department planners that jazz diplomacy had real legs. Ironically, when Gillespie’s band took the stage in Damascus, it wasn’t the mix of black and white musicians that shocked audiences, but the presence of female trombonist Melba Liston and singer Dottie Salter. Gillespie’s band was attacked in Congress by segregationist politicians outraged at the thought of bebop music representing America abroad. But the die was cast; US diplomats now saw jazz as an important tool in their arsenal.
The tours didn’t always go smoothly. In September 1957, outraged by Eisenhower’s refusal to send troops into Little Rock to guarantee the safety of nine black children attempting to enrol in the local high school, Louis Armstrong cancelled his trip to the Soviet Union, saying he wouldn’t defend the US constitution abroad if it wasn’t properly enforced at home.
Reading the dog-eared newspaper cuttings describing ecstatic audiences, and diplomatic cables detailing emotional encounters between musicians and locals, I could sense the impact these tours had on audiences wary of America’s racial politics. The jazz musicians showed up, told it like it was, blew a few notes and made enduring friendships for their country.
While the State Department usually sent jazz musicians to play for non-white audiences in Asia and Africa, they also sent them behind the iron curtain. Remarkably, just six months before the Cuban missile crisis unravelled in 1962, Benny Goodman toured the Soviet Union and played a concert attended by the politician Nikita Khrushchev. No one claims jazz musicians single -handedly averted nuclear war, but the goodwill their tours engendered can’t have hurt in defusing the tension.
Four years have passed since I visited Arkansas. Those four years have seen the entrenchment of political and social divisions that threaten peace in the decades to come. Whether it’s Brexit or the new cold war, our leaders seem intent on building walls rather than tearing them down. In just the last week, I’ve spoken to European artists who can’t get visas to enter Russia, and Russian artists who can’t get an interview for a visa to enter the US. Musicians and promoters on both sides say they cannot remember such a toxic environment for cultural ties between the old rivals.
The well-known maxim tells us to learn from our mistakes. But it’s equally important to remember our successes.
- The Jazz Ambassadors is on BBC4 at 9pm on 4 May, and then on iPlayer, it is also on PBS on Friday 4 May.
- This article was amended on 3 May: Melba Liston was a trombonist, not a trumpeter.