The Jazz Ambassadors: An episode in the history of the American musical form


The Jazz Ambassadors: An episode in the history of the American musical form

Fred Mazelis

14 May 2018

The Jazz Ambassadors, an hour-long film currently available on the US Public Broadcasting network, deals with the period from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s when the US State Department sponsored overseas tours of famous bands led by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and others.

Louis Armstrong (center) is greeted by nine local trumpet players at the airport in Accra, The Gold Coast (present day Ghana) in 1956. Credit: Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

The context was the Cold War between Washington and Moscow. As the movie explains at its outset, US foreign policy officials concluded that “jazz could give America an edge in the Cold War,” with leading figures, mostly African-American musicians, “serv[ing] as Cold War cultural ambassadors.”

The film is directed by Hugo Berkeley, an award-winning British documentary filmmaker, whose earlier work includes Land Rush (2012), on the effort to build a sugar cane business in the West African country of Mali, and The Market Maker (2009), about an Ethiopian economist’s attempt to fight famine.

Narrated by actor Louis Odom, Jr., The Jazz Ambassadorsis filled with absorbing musical and historical footage of this period. This is supplemented by interviews with several historians, and also with some of the musicians, recalling their experiences of 50 and 60 years ago.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet performs in Krakow, Poland in April 1958. Credit: Courtesy of the Brubeck Collection, Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library. (c) Dave Brubeck.

Between 1956 and 1963 there were five State Department-sponsored jazz tours. Dizzy Gillespie and his band went to Asia, the Middle East,…

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