For the past eight decades, the State Department has relied on good old rag-timing, toe-tapping, bee-bopping Jazz to unite peoples and cultures across the globe through a medley of musical exchange programs. Early programs such as the Jazz Ambassadors and Rhythm Road have led to contemporary exchanges like Next Level, Center Stage, OneBeat, Arts Envoys, and American Music Abroad. In April 2021, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken affirmed the centrality of cultural programming to U.S. foreign policy when he said: “America’s arts and culture are a major source of our national strength, our musicians captivate the world. Their work gets people to see each other’s humanity, build a sense of common purpose, change the minds of those who misunderstand us and tell the American story in a way no policy or speech ever could.”
Today, we continue this mission with renewed urgency in the face of a global pandemic, rising concerns over racial injustice, and the need to unite against global threats such as climate change. Celebrating Jazz is a testament to the social power of music. Jazz brings artists and communities together in harmony, providing freedom of expression and inspiring innovation within a framework of rules agreed upon in advance, mirroring American society.
The origin story of Jazz diplomacy as a pillar of foreign policy emerges from the era of Cold War competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union. In a time of dangerous tensions and heightened propaganda, the State Department set out to connect American Jazz artists directly to international artists and foreign audiences to share this music, confront false narratives, and improve the public image of the United States in light of racial tension and inequality. Beginning in 1956, the State Department sent American artists and Jazz Ambassadors abroad – as it still does today – understanding that Jazz evolved from and mirrors the diverse and imperfect fibers of American life and democracy.
Jazz Ambassador heroes included Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, just to name a few. While the Jazz Ambassadors traveled in person, the Voice of America told this compelling story to millions more around the world with Willis Conover’s shortwave radio program. The Jazz Ambassadors’ freedom and success while traveling abroad also focused the domestic lens of American society even further on the racial inequities that the same artists experienced here at home, helping to usher in the Civil Rights era. The Jazz Ambassadors were to evoke the essential American values of tolerance, inclusion, freedom of expression, creativity, innovation, and respect for others by their example, not by their words.
No one knows this better than Richard Johnson, a Jazz Ambassadors alum who recounted to the State Department’s Cultural Programs Division stories of peaceful engagements with dictators in Central America over his music, dinners with diplomats who flew across the Middle East to watch him play, and jam sessions with jazz enthusiasts in Pakistan who took him around the city to find the best Tablas in town. Following a show one night, Richard recalled how a group of Pakistani doctors and scientists invited him to their living rooms for a jam session where Johnson was blown away by their innovative fusion of cultural Tabla rhythms in 13/8-time signatures with American jazz. “Jazz is much more than music,” he said; “it is the very essence of democracy. Freedom, joy, improvisation, creativity! When you share Jazz with those outside of America, people begin to see past any issues or conflicts and discover that this music has meaning. It’s a testament to those elements that help most true democratic governments succeed.”
“Jazz is much more than music: it is the very essence of democracy.” – Richard Johnson, former Jazz Ambassador
Although Covid-19 has halted in-person exchanges, all-virtual cultural programs have kept true to their mission, shifting to safe, online musical workshops, collaboration, and performances. We use technology in place of travel to create new bridges to greet distant audiences and pioneer the use of new and innovative technology to stimulate creativity and entrepreneurship. We are embracing ways to connect through isolation. True to the organic evolution of early jazz, this music continues to find its way.
In 2009, an act of Congress created Willis Conover day on April 25, to pay tribute to the reach of his decades of service to Jazz at the Voice of America. Every year, U.S. Embassies around the globe conduct Jazz engagements celebrating the International Day of Jazz on April 30. It is through Jazz that we examine and better understand our past, and from Jazz, that the boundless spirit in music is nourished and refreshed.
For more on Jazz as a form of diplomacy, watch this interview with Jazz greats Quincy Jones and Justin Kauflin. The interview was produced as part of Jazz Ambassadors Redux, a program that showcases young jazz musicians and is sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’s Cultural Programs Division in partnership with Quincy Jones Productions.
About the Authors: Sunsariay Cox is a rising junior at Santa Monica College, a poet and portrait artist, and a virtual intern with the Cultural Programs Division, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. J.P. Jenks is a Foreign Service Officer and Director of the American Music Abroad (AMA) program, the successor program to the Jazz Ambassadors.
AMA has brought American artists virtually and in-person to posts around the world since 2013. For more about American Music Abroad, see the website here. Connect with the authors or learn more about State Department cultural programming by reaching out to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Follow or message us on Twitter and Instagram as well for the latest updates on our programs.