Satchmo Blows Up The World

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Satchmo Blows Up The World: Jazz Ambassadors Play The Cold War  
Author(s) Penny M. Von Eschen
Publisher Harvard University Press
Publication date 2004
Pages 352
ISBN 978-0674022607
Penny M. Von Eschen’s skillful and entertaining analysis of government-sponsored jazz tours between 1956 and 1974 in Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, “reveals a unique glimpse into the magnitude and hubris of the multifaceted American projects of global expansion in the post-World War II world, exposing troubling questions about the character of American global power in the decades that spanned the collapse of formal European colonialism” (25). Moreover, Von Eschen’s analysis of the tours of jazz musicians and their bands around the world between 1956 and 1974 expertly argues for the connectedness of America’s ever-changing Cold War foreign policy, the turbulent domestic politics of the Civil Rights movement, the domestic and foreign politics of the Vietnam War, and the social upheavals of the early 1970s. In so doing, Satchmo Blows Up the World highlights the interconnectedness of American domestic and foreign policies at a time during which “can-do foreign policy culture, which extended across Democratic as well as Republican administrations, policymakers exhibited extraordinary confidence in America’s ability to shape the world in its image with whatever tools it had”(5). And in highlighting the global power of jazz to bring ordinary citizens—and some politicians—together, Von Eschen situates this book amongst a litany of works on American foreign policy during the Cold War, that, with few exceptions, have neglected to study American cultural diplomacy efforts. (See, for example, Reinhold Wagnleitner, “Coca-Colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria After the Second World War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).)

This chronicle of American Jazz as a foreign policy tool is arranged in nine chronological chapters that trace the government-sponsored jazz tours from, “the first major jazz tours—Dizzy Gillespie to the Middle East in 1956, Benny Goodman to South East Asia in 1957, and Dave Brubeck to Poland and the Middle East in 1958” (27) to the decline of the Jazz tours amidst the globalization of the music industry, an increase in the commercial viability of jazz, and “dramatic shifts in American politics—due to the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the energy crisis” of the early 1970s that “were undermining American policymakers’ confidence in their ability to shape the world” (249). Yet, along the way the reader is presented with a lively, entertaining, and thoroughly researched history that uncovers the internal contradictions and complexities of a program built upon the paradox of belittled black musicians being asked to extoll America’s “color blind” virtues abroad. Indeed, it is the tensions between the US State Department and the jazz artists that were sent on long tours of Cold War hotspots, new nations in post-Colonial upheaval, and, importantly, states that were the focus of CIA covert operations that bring this book to life. And it is in this way that American domestic and foreign policy are adeptly woven together with the growth and evolution of Jazz as a musical form. Thus, in addition to the important foreign policy implications of these tours, we are also shown how a musical genre that was being replaced by rock and roll in the 1950s exploded around the world and by the early 1970s, “could not be contained by one nation” (249).

From the very first tour in 1956 the tensions and complexities of the tours quickly became obvious. On the first tour, “Gillespie and his band members quickly realized that their own desires to play music and meet local musicians, as well as their own agenda of bringing jazz to new audiences, conflicted with the State Department’s focus on indigenous elites as target audiences in fraught political circumstances.” Yet, throughout the book we are also introduced to the different and complex personalities of the musicians themselves who, Von Eschen argues, were not passive pawns in the State Department’s attempts at cultural diplomacy. In the case of Gillespie, she argues, he “didn’t hesitate to defy State Department and local convention, promoting his own vision of America, which was considerably more democratic than that of the State Department” (35). Indeed, Von Eschen’s desire to tease out the complex and contradictory ideas and personalities involved in two-decades of government sponsored jazz tours is remarkable. Her discussion of the internal conflicts within jazz as well as the arguments and conflicts within the bands on the tours reminds the reader not to essentialize, or to conclude that African American musicians were a homogenous group during this period. Nor, that the State Department’s intention’s for the tours were passively accepted and acted upon.

The complex relationships between the State Department and the many bands and artists involved in the tours, however, are also revealed in the often-haphazard nature of these traveling jam sessions. Combined with artists that travelled with their own agenda, Von Eschen shows us the—at times—reactionary nature of American foreign policy. This was best seen during the Middle East crisis of July 1958 when Secretary of State Dulles ordered Dave Brubeck’s band to play more concerts in Iran and Iraq just weeks before General ‘Abd al-Karim Qassim’s coup d’état overthrowing the Iraqi monarchy (54). Moreover, the real pleasure in reading this book is demonstrated in the well-research minor details that add vivid color to these tours and their intimate and complicated relationship with American foreign policy. In the Middle East in 1958, for example, we are treated to the following funny anecdote:

“Alto Saxophonist Paul Desmond had left the group as they went to Iraq and had headed to Beirut for what he thought would be a peaceful vacation on the beach. Instead, Desmond woke up to 14,000 American marines wading ashore amid the sunbathers, to quell the threat of civil war in Lebanon and warn the new Iraqi regime that any threat to Western-controlled oil resources in the area would not be tolerated.”(55)

Von Eschen argues that using African Americans as cultural ambassadors at a time when Civil Rights were being demanded and fought for across the United States presented a number of challenges for the State Department who sought to use the jazz tours to counter negative perceptions of American ideas about race abroad by presenting images of a “color-blind” democracy at home (225). The most prescient challenge was that the musicians themselves, whether part of an all-black band or an integrated orchestra, wanted to speak about the injustices being done in Little Rock, Birmingham, and Montgomery. In refusing to be passive actors, Von Eschen effectively argues, they “represented hope and possibility not a smug claim to a perfected democracy.” Thus, the jazz tours emphasized the “possibility of democracy and global citizenship rather than the scripted power of empire” (259). Indeed, it is in demonstrating the power of the jazz musicians to shape the government’s narratives abroad and to complicate the exported image of the nation where Satchmo Blows Up the World is most effective.

This well-written and thoughtful analysis however has one weakness: the relative neglect of Von Eschen to effectively outline how the tours were impacted by the relationships between the host countries and the United States. While we are shown how the musicians themselves were artistically affected and often changed by the people and artistic traditions and performances that they encountered while on tours, the host countries (especially in the sections focusing on the tours to Africa) are often presented as passive recipients of Gillespie, Armstrong, and the other touring musicians. We are shown the impact and reaction on the Soviet Union and Nikitia Khruschev in chapter 4, “Getting the Soviets to Swing,” yet the tours are at times presented as uncontested by the host country. This omission, however, only slightly detracts from a work that is thoughtfully argued, highly entertaining, and carefully researched. In many ways it absolutely hits the right note!