February 27, 2024

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U.S. State Department founded the Jazz Ambassadors program: Videos

In 1956, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. State Department founded the Jazz Ambassadors program. Leading jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington among others were hired and dispatched to countries around the world.

The point was to use jazz as a socio-political pacifier in countries where Communism posed a threat. The tour also was designed to help bolster America’s reputation abroad given the country’s notorious track record for segregation and racist state and local policies.

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Last week, Jimi Mentis sent along links to a new two-part documentary directed by Hugo Berkeley (above) on the State Department Jazz Ambassadors program. The superb documentary just aired on PBS. It’s most engaging and the history is well researched, though I wish they gone a tad further. For one, I’ve always wondered whether the jazz musicians on tour had been asked to gather information through conversations and observation for the CIA or were debriefed when they returned home, especially musicians who had cameras with them. For another, I’ve always been curious about whether the musicians found the experience tedious or if they resented being asked to go abroad as American image spinners considering what they were fighting at home.

Here’s Hugo Berkeley’s The Jazz Ambassadors

Armstrong

Part 1

Part 2

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