"Jazz Ambassadors" photo show
In the mid-1950s, the State Department hit upon the idea that the United States could polish its image around the world, and culturally compete with the Russians, by sending famous jazz musicians on global tours. And so, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie—all, and many more, made multiple journeys, to the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South America, to the delight of the natives and of the American diplomatic corps, who were convinced that the tours were having an impact. The boisterousness of jazz—its energy, swing, and, above all, its mix of individual improvisation and ensemble interplay—was the ideal incarnation of American freedom. (The fact that most of the jazz bands had black and white musicians, playing together, was also a striking, if misleading, counter to the images of lynchings and racist police attacks that the world was viewing at the time.)
Last summer, the Meridian House in Washington, D.C., sponsored an exhibition of photos from these jazz-ambassadors tours—photos that, in many cases, had only recently been discovered. (I wrote about the show in the New York Times’ Arts & Leisure section.) Now it’s at Lincoln Center, and it will be traveling next to San Francisco, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Missoula, Montana (!). (For the full schedule, click here.)
The exhibition in New York doesn’t include as many photos as the one in Washington, but there is one extra feature that belongs exclusively to Lincoln Center—a set of video clips, including marvelous footage of Armstrong playing outdoors in Ghana, inspiring a whole village to get up and dance. Those were the days.