Jazz in the Cold War

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In 1945, the United States emerged from World War 2 as a global power, contemporaneously with forty countries liberating themselves of colonialism. It was the intention of the United States for these newly developing nations to side with the West and Capitalist ideals, not the Soviet Union and its Communism.“In 1956 the State Department was persuaded that jazz was an important tool in achieving this diplomatic objective,” (Monson 111).

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As U.S. cultural diplomacy was establishing its primacy, the Soviet Union was quick to bring attention to the hypocrisy behind the racial inequality in America. The U.S. responded with a daring propaganda action by strategically promoting jazz music and showcasing multiracial bands in order to positively accentuate American culture. “The State Department hoped that showcasing popular American music around the globe would not only introduce audiences to American culture, but also win them over as ideological allies in the cold war,” (Perrigo).

The Jazz Ambassadors and the cultural exchange programs of the nineteen-fifties and sixties were integral in relieving tension in the Cold War and preventing major conflict. “Jazz was born and grew up in the United States and nowhere else. As a European composer remarked to me: ‘Jazz is one of America’s best-loved artistic exports,’” (Stearns 31). After the Thirteenth Amendment was passed and the Industrial Revolution took place, freedmen fled to cities to find well-paying work. These men brought their music, which consisted of Work Songs and Field Hollars, which were call and response tunes meant to keep steady time so the workers wouldn’t fall behind.

These songs were mostly consisting of pentatonic or Blues scales, which was essential in the creation of Jazz. These workers also brought their music from West Africa; freedmen from the Ewe tribe in modern-day Ghana or the Yaruba tribe in modern-day Nigeria imported African rhythms like the Abakwa that are still found in most jazz played today. These African concepts were introduced to the European instruments and chords already in America, which eventually led to Dixieland Jazz, Second Line, and marching bands in the early twentieth century. As a port city at the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans was an inclusive city and a breeding ground for cultures. Jazz is a culmination of the musical concepts from West Africa and Europe shaped by slavery and American culture in New Orleans.

The Bureau of International Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Mission is to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange that assist in the development of peaceful relations,” (History and Mission of ECA). In August 1954, President Eisenhower asked Congress to approve a President’s Emergency Fund in order to establish a cultural exchange program capable of portraying the good nature of the cultural values of free enterprise. In response, The Bureau of International Educational and Cultural Affairs of the Department of State designated the American National Theatre and Academy or ANTA as agent for administering the program casually referred to as the State Department tours. 2.5 million was rewarded towards cultural presentations and ANTA set up advisory panels in music, dance, and drama. They selected groups to represent the United States and perform internationally. In the early nineteen-fifties, State Department-funded Voice of America played Jazz music to neutral, newly-independent countries in order to culturally educate them.

The Jazz stations had become exceptionally popular overseas drawing a large jazz-loving audience all over the world.” One example was titled “Music U.S.A. Jazz Hour” in which Jazz expert Willis Conover hosted six nights a week for forty years. “In 1962, a New York Times article lauded Conover’s radio show for putting jazz on the map and successfully spreading American values all over the world better than broadcasting service had done to date,” (Gould 147). Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a U.S. congressman from 1945 to 1971 with close ties to the jazz community, urged the Bureau of International Educational and Cultural Affairs to include jazz in its cultural diplomacy programs. In acknowledgment, the music advisory panel approached Marshall Stearns, a musicologist, the founder of The Institute of Jazz Studies, and a consultant to the United States State Department, to negotiate with major jazz musicians. Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Stan Kenton were considered and on Nov 24, 1955, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. announced the State Department’s intention to send Dizzy Gillespie and his Band abroad on goodwill tours; it would be the first jazz group sent abroad under ANTA’s International Exchange Program. Broadcasted on CBS to the nation, Powell introduces Dizzy: “Instead of talking about a cold war, we can call it a ‘cool war’ from now on,” (Monson 113). Dizzy adds: “‘The weapon that we will use is the cool line,’ and then blew a few for the delighted CBS newsreel crew,” (Monson 114).

Marshall W. Stearns accompanied Dizzy Gillespie and his band as an artistic adviser, bandboy, and lecturer on jazz on their tour, which covered eight Middle Eastern and Balkan countries and lasted from approximately the middle of March to the middle of May. During their stay in each new city, Dizzy and Marshall were treated like heroes; their music was received with wild enthusiasm and sold out venues. In Istanbul, a beautiful woman who turned out to be one of the country’s most famous ballerinas sold her dancing slippers to attend Dizzy’s concerts. The Dean of the Conservatory of music in Ankara originally rejected the group’s request to give a lecture to his students. Subsequently, he listens to one of Dizzy’s concerts then begs for him to lecture at his Conservatory exclaiming that this American Jazz was extraordinary.

Jazz in America was different from anywhere else in the world and was extremely decorative to American culture. Jazz gave off the impression of cheerful, informal, and generous side of American life. In Athens, Dizzy arrived just after rioting and the stoning of the United States Information Services building in Greece. In Greece at the time, “the anti-American feeling was real and intense,” (Stearns 30). Gillespie ended up playing for a group of university students; “they were the people, we were told, who had hurled the rocks,” (Stearns 30). The concert was a huge success and the same group of university students loved it: “with a solid wall of applause, They chanted ‘Dizzy, Dizzy, Dizzy’ over and over again. After the concert, they carried Gillespie home on their shoulders. Traffic was stalled for a half hour and several blocks. Even the traffic cops danced in the streets. It was like a Greek Mardi Gras: GREEK STUDENTS LAY DOWN ROCKS AND ROLL WITH DIZ ran the headlines,” (Stearns 30).

Micheal Stearns Speaks in his article he wrote about his experience with Dizzy: “People said to me, ‘We are sick to death of propaganda about democracy—we want deeds and people, not words and theories. We are convinced that you have many bathtubs, skyscrapers, and automobiles, but we have real doubts about your culture. Send us true examples,’” (Stearns 31). Jazz is the true example of American culture, American musicians like Dizzy traversed Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America spreading their love and musical prowess, but also tagging along, with authority, was illustrious American customs and society. “The concrete example of one good jazzband may communicate more of the sincerity, joy, and vigor of the American way of life than several other American creations inspired by Europe,” (Stearns 31).

Another Jazz musician that carried the American flag through uncharted land was Dave Brubeck, whose performances were the first of any American jazz band behind the iron curtain. Audiences in the late nineteen fifties were used to more formal, Soviet-approved culture like ballet and opera. This was because, after the Soviet takeover and World War Two, Jazz was forbidden despite early jazz thriving in Poland in the nineteen-thirties. This regulation was broken by Brubeck’s tour. At his concerts, Brubeck spoke to the people, inspiring them with his music and transforming that into admiration for the United States: “No dictatorship can tolerate jazz,” “It is the first sign of a return to freedom,” (Perrigo). It was the State Department’s intention to influence Satellites of the Soviet Union and lead them away from the grasp of Communism: “The Brubeck Quartet’s 12 performances in Poland were some of the first in a long tour that would never stray far from the perimeter of the Soviet Union,” (Perrigo).

The alliance between the State Department and Jazz musicians from the United States allowed American music to influence strategic locations that were not profitable enough for the Jazz musicians to reach on their own. “By sending bands comprised of black and white musicians to play together around the world, the State Department could engineer an image of racial harmony to offset the bad press about racism at home,” (Perrigo). This was the significance of the State Department Tours as a whole; the State Department engineered an image of prosperous and free American life that was implanted into the minds of the “Reds.”

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Jazz In The Cold War. (2019, Apr 11). Retrieved January 27, 2023 , from

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