Culture should refuse to be diplomatic, BBC Culture

Many nations export culture in the hope of winning foreign policy advantage. But art should refuse to be a tool of politics, I write on BBC Culture.


AT the height of the Cold War, the US State Department deployed a new weapon in its fight against communism – jazz. Over a period of 20 years, it dispatched some of the greatest musicians – Dizzie Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington –to play in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and even the Soviet Union, where Benny Goodman tooted his clarinet in Red Square, in a battle for hearts and minds. The New York Times of 6 November 1955 reported on its front page: “America’s secret weapon is a blue note in a minor key.” Louis Armstrong was named as “its most effective ambassador”.

Rather than send the traditional symphony orchestras and prima ballerinas, what could better advertise American values than the fresh and free-flowing notes of these soloists who were taking music in new and exciting directions? Jazz seemed to speak volumes about the freedom of the individual to do his own thing. What’s more, most of the musicians were black, sent abroad to prove that America was enlightened – this was especially important because at the same time the country faced the problem of racial division. Segregation in the South and civil rights struggles tarnished America’s image. Soviet propaganda in turn ridiculed the ideals the US projected as hollow.

(Dizzy Gillespie in 1956 in Zagreb, in what was then Yugoslavia, with the Yugoslav composer Nikica Kalogjera as passenger.)

The jazz ambassadors benefited financially, of course, but also in terms of recognition. It showed they had arrived, that their tunes were valued. But many were uncomfortable with trumpeting the glories of America and spoke out against domestic policies. Dizzy Gillespie went on the first State Department trip but wouldn’t attend official briefings, saying he “wasn’t going to apologise for the racist policies of America” and he veered away from the brief of performing for the important elites the State Department was courting. Instead, he jammed with local musicians and played for the poor.

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