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It was three months ago—though it feels like three years—when Secretary of State Antony Blinken strapped on a Fender Stratocaster, stepped to a mic in the State Department’s august Benjamin Franklin Room, and led a band of musician-friends through a more-than-passable cover of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man.”

Blinken was kicking off the Global Music Diplomacy Initiative, which, as he put it to the festive crowd of officials and artists, aimed to leverage the power of music to “transcend the borders of geography and … language” and to “foster collaboration between America and people around the world.”

He had no idea that, 10 days later, Hamas would mount a savage attack from Gaza, murdering 1,200 Israelis and kidnapping 250 more, or that Israel would retaliate with an invasion and air strikes that have killed 20,000 Palestinians so far, triggering massive waves of antisemitic and anti-American protests worldwide.

Nor did he have a clue that, two months into this “gut-wrenching” crisis, as he came to call it, Senate Republicans would block further military aid for Ukraine, holding it hostage to contentious domestic politics—passage of a bill that would pretty much close the U.S.–Mexico border to asylum-seekers—and thus calling into question not only Ukraine’s ability to continue staving off Russian aggression but also America’s reliability as an ally.

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In retrospect, was Blinken’s vision of music as a vehicle of global transformation a blip and a piffle, a charmingly naïve indulgence?

Well, yes and no.

The State Department has been sponsoring similar programs for decades. It began in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, when America was experiencing a different set of problems with its image. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the flamboyant Harlem congressman, had a suggestion: Rather than sending ballet troupes and symphony orchestras on international tours, in a futile attempt to compete with the Soviet Union’s Bolshoi, let the world see and hear “real Americana,” something the Russians couldn’t match—send out jazz bands.

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And so, for more than a decade, some of the country’s most famous musicians—Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, among others—went on “Jazz Ambassador” tours, for weeks or months at a time, through the Middle East, South America, Asia, and the Soviet bloc.

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For a while, the venture had real impact. The musicians attracted enormous, excited crowds. During a stop in Congo, local drummers and dancers paraded Armstrong through the streets on a throne. In Athens, where students had recently thrown stones at the local headquarters of the U.S. Information Service in protest of Washington’s support for Greece’s right-wing dictatorship, hundreds of the same students greeted Gillespie with cheers, lifting him on their shoulders, shouting, “Dizzy! Dizzy!” When Ellington came to Moscow, a U.S. diplomat wrote in his official report that crowds greeted the Duke as something akin to “a Second Coming,” with one Russian yelling, “We’ve been waiting for you for centuries!”

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Jazz was a natural enticement for the Cold War (just as rock ’n’ roll would be in the late ’60s). Soviet citizens who hated their government found anything American alluring. Ralph Ellison called jazz an artistic counterpart to the American political system. Soloists can play anything they want as long as they stay within the tempo and the chord changes—just as, in a democracy, citizens can say or do anything as long as they don’t break the law. When I was a Moscow correspondent in the early-to-mid ’90s, many Russians I met told me that their most endearing, and enduring, impression of the United States came from listening to bootleg jazz albums and to Willis Conover’s Jazz Hour on Voice of America radio.

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It is hard to imagine what sort of music—what sort of cultural artifact generally—might make a dent nearly as large as jazz did in the ’50s or rock did in the ’60s. For one thing, the world is no longer dominated by the East–West divide. If the citizens of some country don’t like their own culture, they can seek out the cultures of lots of other countries—they’re not restricted to choosing between American or Soviet models. For another, American music and movies are already widely available, through the internet or satellite TV; people might not even associate them with America.

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Finally, as Penny Von Eschen noted in her 2004 book Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, even in the program’s heyday, audiences abroad “never confused or conflated their love of jazz and American popular culture with an acceptance of American foreign policy.” The biggest impact on hearts and mind came, as it always has, from what the U.S. government does.

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The State Department has continued to fund foreign tours modeled on the Jazz Ambassadors. Since 1975, American Music Abroad has funded 375 tours, mainly through Europe, of high school, college, and other not-so-famous bands. In 2005, the program branched out to Rhythm Road, which has sent 150 jazz musicians to more than 100 countries at a cost of $1.5 million a year. In 2013, it formed Next Level, which sends hip-hop musicians to conduct two-week-long workshops abroad—63 countries so far—and to bring some of the foreign musicians to the U.S. for tutorials in the music and recording industries.

These are more modest programs than Jazz Ambassadors, in terms of scale, celebrity, and political ambition. There’s no attempt to pitch the superiority of American-style democracy. Rather, it’s to explore common elements of music here and abroad. Junious Brickhouse, the director of Next Level, told me that “the idea is to create—or help recognize—a larger, global community.”

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In that sense, its politico-cultural aim is a long-term endeavor, idealistic but not as quixotic as the earlier campaigns. T.K. Harvey, director of the Meridian International Center, which has been involved in some of these programs for decades, put it this way: “The effects of cultural diplomacy aren’t felt right away. But when you work with young people abroad, they appreciate American culture—and that might affect the way they and their society view our country over time.”

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Sometimes the effect is calculated. In mid-September, as Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping were about to hold their summit outside of San Francisco, the Philadelphia Orchestra arrived in China for a weeklong four-city concert tour. They played Beethoven, Mozart, and Bernstein, but also Hua Yanjun and Chen Yao Xing. The tour marked the 50th anniversary of the orchestra’s first visit, just after President Richard Nixon’s pathbreaking summit with Mao Zedong—a trip that Nixon, who was a friend of Eugene Ormandy, the symphony’s conductor, arranged. The orchestra had returned to China 13 times in the half-century since, each time to vast acclaim and mass media coverage—even more so this time, the first visit since the lifting of China’s extreme COVID lockdown.

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Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, said in an email, “The pandemic had separated the American and Chinese people, with no in-person cultural exchanges for nearly four years.” The Philadelphia Orchestra’s tour “turned the page on that period of estrangement.”

Matías Tarnopolsky, the orchestra’s president and CEO, recalled that the last time the musicians visited China, in 2017, he sat for a very stiff meeting with a senior Chinese official. But at the end, the official led him aside and urged him to keep making these tours. The official recalled how much his parents talked about the event when Ormandy and the orchestra came in 1973, and what it meant for hopes of contact with the rest of the world. “At times,” the official told him, “these cultural exchanges are the only thing that works.”

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How the State Department Wants to Use Music to Change the World

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28.12.2023
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It was three months ago—though it feels like three years—when Secretary of State Antony Blinken strapped on a Fender Stratocaster, stepped to a mic in the State Department’s august Benjamin Franklin Room, and led a band of musician-friends through a more-than-passable cover of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man.”

Blinken was kicking off the Global Music Diplomacy Initiative, which, as he put it to the festive crowd of officials and artists, aimed to leverage the power of music to “transcend the borders of geography and … language” and to “foster collaboration between America and people around the world.”

He had no idea that, 10 days later, Hamas would mount a savage attack from Gaza, murdering 1,200 Israelis and kidnapping 250 more, or that Israel would retaliate with an invasion and air strikes that have killed 20,000 Palestinians so far, triggering massive waves of antisemitic and anti-American protests worldwide.

Nor did he have a clue that, two months into this “gut-wrenching” crisis, as he came to call it, Senate Republicans would block further military aid for Ukraine, holding it hostage to contentious domestic politics—passage of a bill that would pretty much close the U.S.–Mexico border to asylum-seekers—and thus calling into question not only Ukraine’s ability to continue staving off Russian aggression but also America’s reliability as an ally.

Advertisement

Advertisement

In retrospect, was Blinken’s vision of music as a vehicle of global transformation a blip and a piffle, a charmingly naïve indulgence?

Well, yes and no.

The State Department has been sponsoring similar programs for decades. It began in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, when America was experiencing a different set of problems with its image. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the flamboyant Harlem congressman, had a suggestion: Rather than sending ballet troupes and symphony orchestras on international tours, in a futile attempt to compete with the Soviet Union’s Bolshoi, let the world see and hear “real Americana,” something the Russians couldn’t match—send out jazz bands.

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And so, for........

© Slate


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