WASHINGTON — Americans underestimate the impact of jazz on audiences around the world. And in a way that contributes to the power of international tours by U.S. jazz musicians, including and especially tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
Trumpeter and NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Owens said that audiences in other countries repeatedly surprise musicians with their familiarity with American music.
“Many times I would start a concert with a spiritual,” he remembered. “On a tour for the State Department, in Nicaragua, I started a concert playing ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’ and all of a sudden I heard the people in the audience singing along with me in Spanish.”
And if audiences don’t know the songs, according to Owens, they may well recognize the harmonies and the rhythms.
“We had people get up and dance in Cairo when we were playing Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan,’” he said. “All of a sudden people started to get up and dance. We didn’t expect that. The music got to them; the rhythm got to them.”
But Owens added that musicians representing the U.S. may also have an educational mission when they are in front of audiences that may not be entirely familiar with the music.
“I have learned from the masters that I have worked with – Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Duke Ellington, Count Basie – that they have always surrounded themselves with very competent communicators of this music,” Owens explained. “So I have always done that. My group always had the kind of people that have to be able to speak, to carry information to people who do not understand anything about this music – as well as be able to communicate musically, emotionally, rhythmically, melodically, with an audience that has not been familiar with jazz music.”
Willard Jenkins, Artistic Director of the Washington DC Jazz Festival, noted that the very act of performing and improvising jazz music conveys freedom and democracy.
“Jazz music and the way jazz music is made is the most democratic art form,” he said. “You are actually seeing democracy in action on the bandstand.”
During the Cold War, America’s most prominent “jazz ambassadors” included Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong – at a time when segregation was the law of the land in much of the U.S. and the civil rights movement was at its peak. And that created a conflict for many of musicians.
“You had people being hosed down with fire hoses and dogs sicced on them, and you had these reports going out across the world,” said Jenkins. “So it did create a real issue for many of the African American musicians who were selected to make those tours.”
Then Jenkins read from instructions given to musicians by the State Department: “’Remember who you are and what you represent. Always be a credit to your government.’”
Jenkins added, “As opposed to, be a credit to the American people.”
Jazz broadcasts on the Voice of America were for decades among the most popular and powerful programs carried by U.S. international broadcasting, and VOA’s leading jazz host, Willis Conover, was a global celebrity. But because VOA could not be heard in the U.S., Conover was all but unknown to fellow Americans.
Murray Horwitz, lyricist, NPR music executive and Director of Special Projects for Washington Performing Arts, remembered one dramatic story told by NBC News anchor John Chancellor when Chancellor arrived as the new head of VOA in 1965.
“’When I got to VOA, I had no idea who this guy Willis Conover was,'” Horwitz quoted Chancellor. “But then on a trip to West Africa, he was going through customs and the officer looked at his diplomatic passport and he said ‘les etats-unis? Connez-vous Willis Conover?’ [Do you know Willis Conover?]”
“I’m convinced,” Horwitz continued, “that what John Chancellor said was true at the time: that except for Muhammad Ali, who was champion, Willis Conover was probably the best known American in the world, and yet he was unknown in the United States.”
This month’s forum presented in partnership with the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Public Diplomacy Council and the DC Jazz Festival and was moderated by the Festival’s Executive Director, Sunny Sumter.