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Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War Hardcover – December 17, 2004
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According to history professor Von Eschen, at a time when the cultural contributions of black Americans were being derided, the U.S. State Department found it useful to send luminaries of jazz music into the world as ambassadors, preceding covert actions in Europe and Africa. In this exploration of the significance of jazz as a propaganda tool during the cold war era, Von Eschen looks at how this phenomenon was reflected in the domestic civil rights movement. Using Louis Armstrong, "Satchmo," as her focus, she recounts privately sponsored international tours that provoked tensions and debates within the State Department. Opponents saw blacks and their creations of jazz and gospel as culturally inferior, while proponents argued that jazz was representative of America at its best and the tours were useful in advancing domestic and overseas agendas. This book puts fresh light on jazz, Satchmo, and the civil rights era. Vernon Ford
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
From the mid-1950s through the late 1970s, the U.S. State Department deployed an unlikely tool in the propaganda war against the Soviet Union: federally funded global tours of jazz musicians, especially African American performers. Penny M. Von Eschen's fascinating Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War is both a giddy celebration of an American art form and a disturbing reminder of the challenges of racial politics. (Phil Hall Hartford Courant 2004-12-19)
This book fascinates on many levels. Whether for juicy anecdotes or a potted history of jazz in Soviet Russia, where the Americans were amazed by the expertise of fans, this is where to look. (Michael Church The Independent 2005-02-01)
This is an important book...It is a revealing look at how jazz and jazz musicians used, and were used by, our government at a time when the music had almost been forgotten in this country. (Thomas Jacobsen New Orleans Times-Picayune 2005-02-27)
From 1956 through the late 1970s, the United States government blanketed the far corners of the world with jazz, not in the service of the dollar, but in order to win the hearts and minds of the wrongly committed...Penny Von Eschen's fine study of 'jam-bassadors' and the marooned hipsters who loved them pursues this tension down to its queerest details. (Hua Hsu The Wire 2005-04-01)
In Satchmo Blows Up the World, Penny M. Von Eschen tells the story of [a] neglected chapter of the Cold War with an acute feeling for the complex motives of all the parties...There is now a small cottage industry of work on the cultural Cold War, typified by...influential conspiracy theories...Containment, hegemony, and imperialism are among the buzzwords of this prosecutorial approach, though their application to complex, ambitious art leaves much to be desired. Satchmo Blows Up the World is a valuable corrective to the one-sidedness of these books. Von Eschen does not slight the propaganda value of the jazz tours. But she is alive to the mixed motives of the official sponsors and the varying agendas of the musicians, who were eager for appreciation and stimulated by their encounter with distant cultures. She understands the enthusiasm of far-flung audiences, locked in by their political system or by local elites. She does not see them simply as objects of ideological manipulation. The fans who flocked to these concerts and surreptitiously taped the jazz programmes on the Voice of America were hungry for freedom; they saw jazz as a language of untrammeled self-expression, a fluid, cosmopolitan art bursting with the energies of modernity. In short, the jazz tours took on a life of their own, a musical life, in spite of the Cold War purposes they also served...[Satchmo Blows Up the World] avoids most of the perils of Cold War historiography and, at the same time, testifies to a handsome new maturity in jazz scholarship. (Morris Dickstein London Review of Books 2005-04-15)
Satchmo Blows Up the World is a fine contribution to the growing literature on the broader contours of cold war cultural politics...The stories [Von Eschen] tells are marvelous and often touching...But what comes across even more strongly in Satchmo Blows Up the World is the flagrant paradox of a marginalized people sent abroad to sing the praises of the very country that marginalized them...Perhaps even more than the Americanization of global culture, the enduring legacy of cold war musical diplomacy was the internationalization of jazz. (Brian Morton The Nation 2005-06-27)
At the height of the Cold War, the US launched a program that would reach far beyond formal diplomacy: it started sending jazz artists around the world playing America's music. Among the participants were Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Charles Mingus, and Ornette Coleman. They went to every part of the world, including the communist heartland. In this well-written, detailed account of those 'jazz ambassadors,' Von Eschen shows how the program during its 22 years exceeded any possible expectations anyone could have had. In the first few pages, she discusses the irony of using mostly black jazz artists as symbols of the triumph of American democracy in what was still a Jim Crow nation. While abroad, many of the musicians spoke frankly and honestly about life in America and insisted on reaching out beyond the elite audiences organized for their concerts. The program's political impact was significant at a time when 40 new African and Asian nations were emerging and the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum in the US. Deserv[es] a wide audience. (C. M. Weisenberg Choice 2005-06-01)
The prominence of jazz in Cold War-era cultural diplomacy is well known...But Penny M. Von Eschen's book offers the broadest and most in-depth treatment to date, with specific attention to the ironies and contradictions inherent in the U.S. government's promoting African American culture abroad while waffling on racial justice, civil rights, and public funding for the arts at home...Using State Department documents, U.S. and foreign press accounts, and musicians' oral and written reminiscences, she has written an engrossing narrative about how jazz musicians experienced and (re)configured their roles as cultural ambassadors, while addressing multiple overlapping themes about race, representation, aesthetics, activism, and the possibilities of musical diplomacy. (E. Taylor Atkins American Historical Review)
Penny M. Von Eschen's account of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong ("Satchmo") as a cultural envoy is a sophisticated and insightful study of this process of interpretation and reinvention. It is, furthermore, an examination of how Armstrong and others resisted the commodification of their music and distortion of its meaning...The best scholarship is multifaceted, and this work is no exception. The book is sure to provide a lively point of entry for students into the area of cultural diplomacy, and it will also attract anyone interested in jazz, US studies, and cultural history generally. (Brenda Gayle Plummer International History Review)
In her fascinating and meticulously researched study of official involvement in overseas tours by leading American jazz musicians during the Cold War, Penny M. Von Eschen vividly and sometimes mercilessly exposes the essentially two-faced nature of the Government's attitude towards the music. At the same time, she sheds much light on individual musicians' attitudes towards their Government and towards the ideals it strove to promote in the international cultural and political arenas in the period c.1956-78. Exemplary in the wide range of source material from which it efficiently draws (including official papers and other archival sources, and personal interviews featuring the first-hand testimony of leading musicians caught up in the events--notably Dave and Iola Brubeck), her account deftly draws on a huge range of supporting literature relating to US politics, culture, and foreign policy. The text is consistently readable, informative, and sometimes entertaining, and likely to appeal as much to the general reader as to the specialist in either jazz or US international affairs. (Mervyn Cooke Music & Letters)
A fascinating account of how the U.S. State department tried to win the Cold War by appealing to hearts, minds and souls around the world through its great jazz musicians. And, since most of the musicians were black (Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington), to create the impression of a country where racism was not an issue. (Martin Levin Globe and Mail 2006-10-21)
Top customer reviews
In a nutshell, this is Von Eschen's premise: in the 1950's the Eisenhower administration was getting hammered by the Soviets over civil rights atrocities in the south, and losing its influence over the newly emerging nations of Africa and Asia. In addition, the Soviets were sending symphony orchestras and ballets around the world to popular acclaim. America couldn't match them, because the state of the arts in this country was so bad. So Ike, who loathed both civil rights and jazz, started sending integrated jazz bands overseas to demonstrate racial progress and show off a form of cultural expression the Russians couldn't match. Dizzy Gillespie was the first, in 1956, followed by Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman and others during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. For the artists, it was a chance to fly the flag for jazz, keep big bands employed in the hardscrabble days of the 60's, and prove their joint loyalty to nation and race.
After a bit of a disorganized start in which she can't decide between following a chronological or artist-based organization, the author wisely settles on the latter. Although Von Eschen is no jazz critic, she avoids any flubs by simply staying out of the way and sticking to what she does know. For the jazz fan/historian, the highlights include a wonderful account of the joint Dave & Iola Brubeck/Louis Armstrong project "The Real Ambassadors," a musical comedy meant for Broadway but only performed once at Newport. It was based on their experiences as State Department representatives and good-naturedly sends up everyone involved. (It was studio recorded in the weeks before Newport and is available from Amazon as a Columbia CD). Also, there is a detailed acccount of Benny Goodman's 1963 disaster of a trip to Russia, where Benny managed to alienate the Russians, the State Department, and his own musicians.
In all, a well-written book. Jazzbos will be happy as long as they keep in mind that this is not exclusively a jazz book and are willing to stick with it through the cultural and political history.
This book is helpful and informational, but unless you need to read it for a class (as I am doing), I would not recommend it.
Jazz buffs will delight in the well-documented accounts of the overseas experiences of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and Benny Goodman. Many other jazz ambassadors and their noteworthy band members are covered in less detail, or simply mentioned briefly (for example, Count Basie, Stan Getz, Charles Mingus, Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods). Some readers may wish that their favorite artist had been given more coverage, but in any case you'll be surprised at how many performers in the jazz community of that era were involved in this multi-decade enterprise.
As the bands endured grueling travel schedules to appear in seemingly unlikely locations for jazz concerts (such as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union, to name just a few), they were often embraced and sometimes challenged, not just by host country officials, but also by State Department employees at U.S. embassies. A fascinating sample of these interactions is chronicled here, along with the almost universal enthusiasm for the performers by audiences and local musicians at all of their destinations.
Jazz aficionados and readers too young to remember any part of the 1950s-70s may have less interest in the book's discussion of the interplay between the jazz tours, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the Cold War policies of containment of the Soviet Union and courtship of non-aligned nations. Nonetheless, there were important dynamics at work that should attract more than just academic interest. The book does an excellent job of showing that the jazz tours presented a face of America to the world that was not exactly what the State Department was expecting, but perhaps was better because it was more authentic.