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Rita M.

Hynes
Radboud University Nijmegen

The Real Ambassadors?
The Failings of Jazz Diplomacy and the Cold War Art of Duke Ellington and Josephine
Baker
“No commodity is quite so strange
as this thing called cultural exchange
Say that our prestige needs a tonic
export the Philharmonic,
That´s what we call cultural exchange!”
(see Louis Armstrong)
In 1962, the bandleader and trumpeter Louis Armstrong, along with the jazz vocalist Carmen
McRae, recorded the song “Cultural Exchange” and celebrated an emblematic freedom of
American democracy during a Cold War crisis. Their jazzy rendition of the American dream
supposedly charmed and beckoned those outside the U.S. to participate in their world-wide
concert series and later concept albums.
The Real Ambassadors (1962) was just one of the many socio-political jazz albums of the
decade that was inspired by these concerts. It claims to have artistically dealt with themes of an
ideal American democracy through explicit tactics of “white” political propaganda. In
Armstrong’s “Cultural Exchange” lyrics, one can see how popular culture and the Cold War,
civil rights and democracy, jazz and U.S. diplomacy became intermittently bound together in a
complex network of American international policy making. This essay argues that lurking
underneath the cheery, patriotic notes of the jazz ambassadors were bludgeoning racial tensions,
drastic codes of censorship and an uncontainable fear of internal communist liaison which
painfully cut through the propaganda it had set out to achieve.
In the 1950s and 1960s, jazz music starkly critiqued Cold War governed democracies and
expressed a much more radical view of American society. It subverted the way America
presented itself as a democratic nation, and in this regards it was not a democratic art form in the
way the U.S government had framed it. During this Cold War era, jazz music became a
consciously ideological weapon utilised by jazz players against foreign policy makers and by the

Americans had aimed for unilateralism in international affairs. but came in more concentrated projects of the State Department in the 1950s and 1960s. there was a great sense of expanding U. During and after World War II. America held itself up to the world as an enduring democratic and just society. and were still subject to legislated white segregation until the late 1960s. These kinds of pro-Soviet campaigns persuasively asked how American democracy can work for the world if people in their own society did not even have the right to vote. Black American people could not vote until 1957. Race relations in America were terse. cultural democracy on a European and international scale. State Department.S. Harvey G.S. Josephine Baker I argue that jazz never stood for ideals of the American government.Rita M. Civil rights for Afro Americans were still a contested and debated issue in American politics. Race relations in America were terse. However. They were sceptical of international institutions and were less inclined to work cooperatively with other countries for common goals (Kagan 1). I have selected these artists specifically to highlight two very different Afro American jazz performers of the 1960s and overall re-examine some issues that linger behind cultural diplomacy and Cold War metanarratives. it was a strong argument against the unilateral vision America had set itself up for. Hynes Radboud University Nijmegen end of the 1960s. both to counter the threat of a post-war communist uprising and to firmly re-establish America as an infallibly democratic determinant of world power. Politically. and soon became a volatile weapon caught in the cross-fire of Cold War politics. Cohen argues that pro-Soviet propaganda ridiculed the irony of America’s . after World War II America was the exact opposite of its own self-fashioned image. Duke Ellington and the acclaimed singer-dancer. Originates of this can be traced in the spreading of American cultural ideas through the Secretary of State’s Marshall Plan initiative of 1947. Segregation was a permanent aspect of day-today living and people were continuously discriminated and penalised in work. it had completely failed to be used as tool of propaganda by the U. I therefore ask were the jazz ambassadors of the Cold War actually diplomatic? Focusing on a cultural comparative case study of the renowned pianist. Cohen argues that pro-Soviet propaganda ridiculed the irony of America’s civil rights abuses and violence in the face of their idealistic vision of democracy (Cohen 412). and soon became a volatile weapon caught in the cross-fire of Cold War politics. education and marriage based entirely on the origin of race. Harvey G.

it was a strong argument against the unilateral vision America had set itself up for. recognizing that their power might be reduced if they refused. democratic conservatism. It was the nation’s obstinate belief in democracy over active “threats” of communism. President Dwight Eisenhower sent the first musical ambassadors to tour abroad as part of the President’s Special International Program for Cultural Presentations. the American government invested heavily in culture programs that would act subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) as propaganda for U.’ (Abrams Asari 51). when the U. Politically. Anti-Americanism. Emily Abrams Asari points out in her essay on Cold War musical diplomacy that in private the president had expressed ‘additional strategic goals depicting music as a psychological tool that could counteract the stereotypical perception of Americans as “bombastic. However.” (Eisenhower in Abrams Asari 41). Hynes Radboud University Nijmegen civil rights abuses and violence in the face of their idealistic vision of democracy (Cohen 412). jingoistic. information officials at the State Department and the United States Information Agency (USIA) to form America’s first peacetime propaganda offensive (Nelson Blake 123). became an ideal American cultural product of propaganda because it was first and foremost a kind of “race” music.S.Rita M.S. President Eisenhower charged the music panels of the Academy of National Theatre and Art (ANTA) to ‘make nearly all of the important decisions about the U.S. U. government’s most visible music propaganda program.S. and totalitarianism that lead U. By performing jazz for the Soviets and other communist affiliates. Its members had agreed to promote jazz in a limited capacity. . Popular and revered jazz players were hence selected by the State Department to display ‘the status and opportunities available to blacks in America’ (Cohen 414). Eisenhower’s reasoning for this was to “contribute to the better understanding of the peoples of the world that must be the foundation of peace. Jazz diplomacy officially began in 1954. To compensate these arguments and convince the rest of the world.S. These kinds of pro-Soviet campaigns persuasively asked how American democracy can work for the world if people in their own society did not even have the right to vote. It had tainted a national post-war image modelled distinctly on domestic democracy and made the world question the integrity of a leading superpower. Jazz. foreign policy had attempted to communicate the idea that civil rights were changing in America and that black people were given a democratic voice in their own country. Mary Dudziak contends that ‘Soviet propaganda on race was uniquely effective because there was so much truth to it’ (Dudziak 546).

Hynes Radboud University Nijmegen and totally devoted to the theories of force and power. Eisenhower must have been aware that the Afro American element in jazz music would signify a much more tolerant national model for race relations. Although popular jazz music was everywhere during this time. The Republican State department evidently saw the cost of sending black jazz ambassadors on tour as an outrageous expense on the government’s part. Regardless of these attitudes towards jazz. Kennedy was elected to presidency in 1961.Rita M. In its place. Evidently most jazz players could not and would not embrace the paradoxical idea of a black artist representing a still-segregated American state (Von Eschen 58).”’ (Abrams Asari 41). Stephen A. Rather it was an extremely contingent enterprise enacted through countless individual actions and statements by a motley assortment of bureaucrats and businessmen. only two years after the president announced his Special International Program for Cultural Presentations. The touring concerts were well received all over the world and gradually the issue of race relations seemed less threatening to the nation’s democratic morale. Edward “Duke” Ellington was ambitious when it came to making a name for himself in jazz.S. the American government had sponsored the first black musician (jazz trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie) to headline a tour as a cultural ambassador in 1956. when Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker performed in these political circles. But there was something much more sinister at play. giving a political voice to those who otherwise had none and heightening awareness of civil rights across the globe. jazz diplomacy had spun out of control in a full swing of chaos. Their art had undermined the project’s propagandised goals and international policies which the U. At first glance. and frequently teetered on the brink of chaos’ (Crist 137). When John F. these early “Cultural Presentations” of jazz had received momentous political success. many in government had little or no interest in jazz themselves. But as well as this. he showed little or no interest in the cultural programmes of jazz and there was a brief lull in the . and would not fund such tours until the year 1960 (Cohen 417). riotous form of Cold War protest. Writing on jazz diplomacy of the late 1950s. and whether or not it was for his career or his personal politics he was greatly aware that his music was voicing out black interests. these artists had created a new. By the 1960s. government had so forcefully set out to tell to the world. Crist observes that the Cold War project of Cultural Presentations ‘did not advance in an orderly and self-evident manner. steering America towards internationalisation.

While touring in 1963. she was never sponsored by the State Department to tour. Her concert lectures did not talk about the progress of black Americans. she alternatively spoke of lynching. segregation and the discriminatory practices in sexual politics (Dudziak 569). this was the kind of Duke Ellington who adamantly used his jazz as a political statement. The reasons were simple. He played forty-three official concerts all around the world and spoke informally for twenty minutes about the tense race struggles in America (Cohen 429). Duke urges that the demands of coloured people “are coming more strong – as they should be” and continues to describe how black people had built America up to what it was today (Duke Ellington with Sven Lindahl). Ellington participated in an interview with the Swedish television channel SVT and talked about American race relations and politics. her political voice was too persistent and her jazz was not diplomatic in an international sense. He astutely stood aside from his pre-designated role as cultural ambassador and placed himself in the wholly undiplomatic position of a black activist seeking out a fairer future for Afro American peoples. Josephine Baker’s work had belonged to the rejected art of the Cold War “Cultural Presentations” exactly because her politics did not meet the criteria of the American . In this television programme we see how direct Duke could be when it came to denouncing a conservative American diplomacy and to speak of a more controversial underbelly of American race politics. Hynes Radboud University Nijmegen State Department tours until a reprisal was released in 1962 (Cohen 418-423). He choose not to gloss over the issue of race relations in America and spoke directly against the government by sharing his views of black civil rights in a troubled American democracy. at first glance. subtle and high-brow compositions had. Duke Ellington was the first headlining black jazz artist to play for the American government in over three years since Kennedy’s election. Josephine Baker had never been considered by the State Department as a jazz ambassador. made him a suitable cultural ambassador of the Cold War. With her own finances. she funded her concerts across Europe and later South America to communicate radically opposed views of the American government’s propagandised democracy. On air. whose calm veneer and intellectual. Josephine Baker was much more audacious when it came to outwardly establishing her political views on America’s race relations. As a result. Unlike Duke Ellington.Rita M. In 1963.

and the Cold War”. Baker was different in style but ideologically both of these artists aligned themselves with their critique of race politics and the refusal to be left unheard in the rhetoric of U. As seen in interviews with Duke Ellington. “Josephine Baker.S. Baker gained an infamous notoriety. but it was through democratic processes (not communism) that optimal social change for African Americans would occur. Hynes Radboud University Nijmegen government. Juan Perón while performing in Argentina. like Ellington. They put a pressure on the political system that President Eisenhower and later President Kennedy’s administration had so . By 1952. When compared to the subtle refineries of Duke Ellington’s art. the pressure from the government further radicalised her art and gave a rising prominence to the rather undiplomatic critique of American democracy.I who sought to discredit her. discussed some of the most taboo issues of racial and sexual discrimination in minority groups before she would perform so even when her songs weren’t making an obvious political statement it was clear where Baker set the tone of her activist beliefs. Government and attempt to sell the European people on the idea that all is well for Negro citizens in America’ (Dudziak 560). succinctly notes the strategy behind the State Department’s ideological intentions: ‘The State Department could and did attempt to counter the influence of such critics on international opinion by sending speakers around the world who would say the right things about American race relations. In this testimony.B. Mary Dudziak’s excellent essay. This immediately caught the attention of the F. Baker had sharply observed that clinching argument against the President’s Special International Program. She presented herself throughout the 1960s as a transparent radical but her politics appeared somewhat dated in the face of the new civil rights movements. Baker was reported by the New York Amsterdam News to have stated ‘her disapproval of Negroes who come to Europe as “good-will” ambassadors of the U. and articulated it in such a forceful way that few jazz players had dared to do before her. Racial Protest. In the midst of her nearly ruined reputation and career. she began an independent tour of South America and associated herself with the left-leaning politician. Josephine Baker had already paved her way abroad. yes.Rita M. When Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong began taking part in the President’s Special International Program for Cultural Presentations less than a decade later.S foreign policy. Baker. there were race problems in the United States. The “right” thing to say was.’ (Dudziak 546) But even before the State Department ambassador tours showcased jazz all over the world.

had consciously denied replicating this democratic order in their art.S democracy. Hynes Radboud University Nijmegen tentatively put in place to repeal the uglier side of a dysfunctional U. and many. interviews and concerts abroad did not represent an America of the United States government. where it touched upon non-white peoples of the Cold War. Both these artists were caught in the middle of a cultural Cold War propaganda campaign of the United States government and their own views of America were perceived as a threat during a communist scare. many more inspired jazz musicians had realised that diplomacy did not mean representing the U. however subtle and seemingly small in the face of larger political threats. . had been marked. The discourse on civil rights was bounded by the terms of Cold War liberalism and although some level of liberal activism would be tolerated. it could only be articulated in a way that did not challenge the democratic order (Dudziak 569). It became ever more apparent that U.S truthfully and so they incorporated a new truth into the performance of their art in order to stand up against it.I and the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC) throughout the1950s and 1960s era of Cold War politics. Baker.S State Department and was then formally passed onto the F. including Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker.B. civil rights became an integral part of their re-presentation of American democracy and decried the foreign policy of diplomacy that the States Department had hoped for. The American government did not allow black artists like Duke Ellington and certainly not like Josephine Baker. Many jazz players. to speak for themselves without a repressive regime of containment and censorship to get in their way and diminish the power of their musical protests. Ellington. by white imperialism (Moss 233). in political terms. Jazz as a way to represent America diplomatically had undeniably failed. Ellington’s suave demure and private political life had saved his career but only because the State Department had somewhat controlled him and his political potential in the cultural ambassador tours of the 1960s. Josephine Baker was not so fortunate and her career and reputation was held back because of scathing articles in the media and threatening files held against her by the F.S domestic problems during the Cold War were to be shielded from the outside international world. American foreign policy. Their music.B.I. but an America representative of them. and instead the government had spent more time try to repress their “national” art rather than promote it. was sceptically noted by ANTA and the U.Rita M. This kind of racial protest. As black performers and artists.

There were many artists who made jazz fans rethink the entire image of the American nation through acts of individual jazz performance. . there were no “real” ambassadors of jazz only musicians and performers who expressed their own intuition and political agendas in their art. Jazz was therefore inherently undiplomatic during the Cold War because the aesthetic values of black jazz music immediately clashed with the principles of the white supremacist political propaganda of American politics. Contrary to what the State Department believed.Rita M. I have demonstrated that the aesthetic make-up of structured jazz forms inevitably ended up delegitimizing Cold War democracy without ever attempting to fully reinforce it. Hynes Radboud University Nijmegen Using both Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker’s popular Cold War jazz as contrasting examples.

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