Dizzy Gillespie's Cold War Jazz Diplomacy

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Official diplomacy is one time-tested way to ease tensions between countries. But as John Birks Gillespie proved two generations ago, American jazz and "cultural outreach" can go a long way, too.

Fifty years ago, in the midst of the Cold War, the U.S. government dispatched a high-level emissary to ease tensions during a nuclear crisis: a jazz trumpeter known to most of the world as Dizzy.

Gillespie and his band went overseas in the name of cultural diplomacy. Last week, the University of Southern California marked the anniversary of this historic tour with a special concert.

USC has just inaugurated a Master's program in cultural diplomacy, emphasizing person-to-person outreach by artists and entertainers.

USC Professor Nicholas Cull explains that in the post-Sept. 11 era, cultural diplomacy is more important than ever.

"America woke up to the need to communicate effectively with the rest of the world," he says.

Cull says even nations hostile to the United States can relate to popular U.S. artists. The U.S. Department of State realized this in 1956 when Gillespie and his band were asked to tour the world.

Gillespie made a point during his tour of playing with local bands, and the experience made an impact with both the Americans and the locals.

"It was a mutually transforming experience, and that's one of the things that was so exciting about those tours," Cull says. "And maybe it's something that's missing today."

Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-NY), who represented New York City's Harlem, was the catalyst behind the 1956 Gillespie tour. His son, Adam Clayton Powell III, is now a professor at USC. He says the power of music — especially jazz, a music genre that originated in America — can communicate what words cannot.

"Really interesting music attracts people, and then they hang around for a discussion of the politics," Powell says. "They may hate our policies, but they love our music."

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Transcript

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, a guy who can't get a date creates his own Web site and now he's hot - or at least dateable.

CHADWICK: First, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels to Asia this week for talks on North Korea. Once, this country sent jazz great Dizzy Gillespie abroad as a cultural diplomat. The University of Southern California recently marked the 50th anniversary of that tour.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Dusk is falling as an assortment of people line up patiently to enter USC's Bovard Auditorium.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, you're going to be in the first balcony. Go to your right and…

BATES: What brings them all here tonight is a concert by the university's student jazz band.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: They're playing music made famous by Dizzy Gillespie as he crossed the globe as an American cultural ambassador. USC has just inaugurated a Master's program in cultural diplomacy: person-to-person outreach done by artists and entertainers. Just outside the auditorium, Professor Nicholas Cull explains why the school decided to add cultural diplomacy to its curriculum.

Professor NICHOLAS CULL (University of Southern California): There are scholars who've always been interested in it, but the reason that somebody's prepared to pay me to do this is because of 9/11 and because the United States has woken up to the need to really communicate more effectively with the rest of the world.

BATES: Cull says even hostile countries can relate to artists. The State Department realized this in 1956 when it asked Gillespie and his band to tour. Bandleader and composer Quincy Jones recalls putting the tour together at Gillespie's request. It wasn't, he recalls, a London, Paris, Rome kind of agenda.

Mr. QUINCY JONES (Musician, Producer, Composer): They sent us to all these places you see on the news now. There's Iran - and Iran, Damascus and Syria, Beirut, Lebanon, Istanbul. It was unbelievable.

BATES: The band became so popular on tour that at one point, the State Department rerouted them to Athens, where Cypriot students were stoning the American embassy. They went, expecting a rough night of it, and, says Jones, were astonished to discover something else.

Mr. JONES: They stormed the stage afterwards, you know. We're scared to death. Trust me. And they run up on the stage and they grab Dizzy and put him on their shoulder and they say Dizzy, Dizzy, Dizzy. That's the power of what the music is about.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: Nick Cull says Gillespie's insistence on playing with local bands wherever he went had an effect at both ends.

Prof. CULL: And their music changed, and his music changed. It was a mutually transforming experience, and that's one of the things that was so exciting and so special about those tours. And maybe it's something that is missing in some of today's cultural interactions when the United States goes overseas.

BATES: Gillespie's manager and friend, Charles Fishman, recalled how foreign audiences would line up to tell him how they followed jazz on Voice of America radio.

Mr. CHARLES FISHMAN (Gillespie's Manager): They said that the Voice of America jazz was their lifeline to hope that one day they would be free, and that jazz inherently represents what this country is supposed to be about: freedom, democracy, diversity and unity.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, herself a classical pianist, sent a congratulatory video message that acknowledged how potent such cultural outreaches can be.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): Even at a time when liberty was denied here in America - a time that I remember well as a girl growing up in the segregated city of Birmingham, Alabama - the music of Dizzy Gillespie spoke the language of freedom. This liberating power of jazz resonated here at home, and it had great appeal to millions of people around the world.

BATES: Professor Adam Clayton Powell III's father, Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was the catalyst behind the ‘56 Gillespie tour. Powell the younger says he hears echoes of that in this evening.

Professor ADAM CLAYTON POWELL III (University of Southern California): What we have here tonight is sort of - in a very different forum - the same kind of combination of really interesting music that attracts people, and then they hang around for the discussion of the politics. They may hate our policies, but they love our music.

Mr. DIZZY GILLESPIE (Musician, Composer): This is one of my earlier compositions. Matter of fact, one of my only compositions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILLESPIE: A Night in Tunisia.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of song, “A Night in Tunisia”)

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.