'The Jazz Ambassadors': Cold War Diplomacy And Civil Rights In Conflict
May 5, 20186:11 PM ET
A new PBS film documents the African-American musicians who spread good will for the U.S. overseas during the war, despite discrimination faced at home. Michel Martin talks to filmmaker Hugo Berkeley.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, we revisit the Cold War. It wasn't just an arms race. It was also a battle about values and culture. And one of the U.S.'s weapons of choice…
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DIZZY GILLESPIE: The weapon that we will use is the cool one. (Playing trumpet).
MARTIN: Those are the words of the great jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who is just one of the world-class musicians the U.S. government deployed in the '50s and '60s to win hearts and minds around the globe. All this as the African-Americans among them were still fighting for human rights and dignity in the U.S. A new documentary, available on PBS, tells the story. It's called "The Jazz Ambassadors," and director Hugo Berkeley is with us now from our bureau in New York to tell us more about it. Hugo, thanks so much for joining us.
HUGO BERKELEY: Thank you very much for having me on.
MARTIN: Well, set the stage for us, if you would. When we hear Cold War, I think a lot of people think about the Cuban missile crisis. But this was also an era when the U.S. and Soviets were fighting a propaganda war. Could you talk a little bit about that?
BERKELEY: Absolutely. In the 1950s you have the Cold War that's happening, obviously. In the mid-1950s, you've really got the burgeoning of the civil rights movement in the United States. And you've also got this great process of decolonization that's happening around the world, where countries like India, African countries, Asian countries are having their own struggle to throw off their colonial oppressors and to embrace liberty. And that means that these countries then enter into a Cold War dynamic where they're being asked to choose either to side with the Americans or with the Soviets on the other side. And so there's this propaganda effort to try and reach out to these newly-independent countries – specifically, India is a huge one in the mid-1950s – to join their side. And that leads to this very interesting jazz ambassadors program.
MARTIN: One of the key drivers of this was Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a congressman – African-American congressman who represented Harlem. What was his role in this?
BERKELEY: So Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a fascinating guy. He was also married to Hazel Scott, who was a jazz pianist. And I think in that couple, they really blend politics and show business. And Adam Clayton Powell is someone who sees the value of American jazz musicians, of America's indigenous art form in terms of communicating to developing countries, countries that were recently experiencing independence. And he tries to convince the State Department that this is a great cultural resource. As the State Department is sending some American cultural exports like the Boston Symphony, or acapella singers, or folk dancers around the world, he says, hold on, why don't we send jazz musicians? There, an art form that's native to the United States, that no one else can compete with.
MARTIN: Maybe this is a good place to mention a radio host named Willis Conover.
BERKELEY: Absolutely. Willis Conover is such a wonderful person and almost maybe a story that people who are into jazz know but who maybe could enjoy a little bit more time in the public limelight. He was a radio broadcaster on "Voice Of America" who launched a show in 1955 called "Music USA."
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WILLIS CONOVER: Some music scholars have said that jazz, which was born here in the United States, is the one new art form in the world. Others say jazz is more than an art. It's a way of life. Jazz guarantees each musician absolute freedom within a framework of cooperation.
MARTIN: Why was he so important to this whole endeavor?
BERKELEY: Well, he's someone who sees jazz as somehow very symbolic of democracy in this – you know, everything's seen through a Cold War lens. And he's a huge figure around the world. His show is received ecstatically. The State Department in 1955 starts to receive all these letters saying how much they enjoy it. And I think people say, wow, this is so popular, maybe we could do something more with it. And he's a champion of jazz on the international stage then for the next 30 years or so in American broadcasting.
MARTIN: And also, importantly, he offered a platform to these musicians. I mean, he interviewed – what? – you know, a who's who of African-American and other jazz artists and gave them this – I mean, they were already known, I guess, by the time they got – they were starting to go overseas. People would have known who they were, right?
BERKELEY: Absolutely. There'd been a fairly well-trodden path outside of the United States in terms of touring artists in Europe and the edges of Europe, maybe a little bit in South America as well. But Willis Conover's broadcasts took the music of Dizzy Gillespie, or Louis Armstrong, or Dave Brubeck way beyond the reach that commercial tours could support at that time.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "PENNIES FROM HEAVEN")
BERKELEY: And so when these artists showed up, I think they themselves were so amazed at the knowledge, the passion, the enthusiasm that, you know, audiences in Congo, or in Egypt, or in Poland had for their music. They had no idea, and that was really eye-opening for them.
MARTIN: But we also see moments in your film when a number of these artists were conflicted about being ambassadors for the U.S. at the time when they were still facing, you know, very obvious blatant discrimination and racism in the U.S. I mean, you know, you're thinking – you're watching this and you're thinking, you know, they would have been turned away from some hotels in the United States, you know, at that time. How did they deal with that dilemma?
BERKELEY: I think that's the real heart of the film, and what we've set out to answer is that question. You know, this was obviously a great opportunity for them to tour the world and to go to new places. But it was – there was a paradox at its heart, which is you're being asked to stump for a country that doesn't treat your own people as equal citizens. And that is the great dilemma of America's stance in the Cold War at that time. So my effort in making this film was really to understand how each individual artist responded to that question in their own words. And we really looked around the world for pieces of archive, interviews, memoir writings, whatever we could find where Louis Armstrong, or Duke Ellington, or Dizzy Gillespie could answer that for themselves.
And what's so great about these musicians, they insist on almost unanimously telling it like it is – not sugar coating anything, being honest. And that comes through both in what they say and in how they play. And that's what really was the most successful, and probably from a State Department point of view, the least expected outcome of this. But it's what really worked.
MARTIN: There's a very moving image in your film of Louis Armstrong performing this jazz standard, "Black and Blue," in Ghana. It's a wonderful song. I'm not sure everybody always listens really carefully to the lyrics, so I'm going to play a little bit of it. And then we can talk about what he's saying.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK AND BLUE")
LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) How would it end? Ain't got a friend. My only sin is in my skin. What did I do to be so black and blue?
BERKELEY: It's remarkable piece of footage to see Louis Armstrong singing that to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in 1956 as that country's experiencing its own independence struggle. And Robin D.G. Kelley, who we interviewed in the film, speaks so eloquently about the universality of those lyrics about the desire to want to be other than you are. And Armstrong is really able to bridge this divide with that Ghanaian audience and specifically to such an important leader like Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, such an important liberating figure in African politics and say, we sympathize. This is a universal issue, and we're somehow connected.
MARTIN: In the end, what do you make of their journeys? Do you think these musicians were ambassadors for the U.S., or were they in some ways ambassadors for music or for jazz as a kind of a universal language?
BERKELEY: I think that all of those things, actually. They are certainly ambassadors for the United States. And maybe it's a bit more difficult to imagine it from today's point of view, but the world they were inhabiting was so conditioned by this binary Cold War opposition of Soviet Communism and an American democratic values. So I really did get the sense as I researched this film and got closer to the thoughts of these musicians that they were very patriotic and they did want to help the United States. And yet, as many people who were involved in the film and we were able to interview attest, there was – it was all about a kind of internationalism and a lack of a specific ideology and forming connections around the world. So
that really goes beyond the, you know, the United States and its particular grievance with the Soviet Union. So it's all of those things. And maybe that's what makes it both an interesting historical document but also a more universal one that I hope resonates today as well.
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MARTIN: That was filmmaker Hugo Berkeley talking about his new film "The Jazz Ambassadors." He joined us from our studios in New York. And you can now stream "The Jazz Ambassadors" on pbs.org.
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