Jazz ambassadors

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Benny Goodman in Red Square, 1962While waiting for my son, who was rehearsing with a small orchestral ensemble at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in Tulsa's old Union Depot, I had time to look over the exhibits, in particular a traveling collection of photos and posters called "Jam Session: America's Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World". It's about an interesting bit of history where music met Cold War politics. From the 1950s to the 1970s, famed American jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, and Dave Brubeck traveled the world as cultural ambassadors for the USA.

Up until the mid-'50s, America had been sending out our own ballerinas and symphony orchestras to try to counter the classically-oriented cultural outreach of the USSR. According to the exhibit, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., suggested to President Eisenhower that America should capitalize on the distinctly American art form of jazz, a type of music that the Soviet Union condemned as decadent.

Eventually, under Khrushchev, American jazz musicians made it to Moscow, and one photo in the exhibit is accompanied by a charming anecdote about Benny Goodman:

For his part, Goodman surprised the Soviets with an impromptu solo clarinet performance in Red Square. The New York Times noted that he became a visiting "Pied Piper" for curious children who swarmed around him in the shadow of the Kremlin. When Benny saw a squad of soldiers marching stiffly by to relieve the guard at the Lenin Mausoleum, the temptation was too much for him and he broke into a rendition of Pop Goes the Weasel. He then "caught the rhythm of the passing boots and the King of Swing kept time with the Red Army."

"Jam Session" will be at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame through July 9, 2010. Admission is free; donations are accepted. Exhibit hours are Tuesdays through Fridays, 10am to 5pm; Saturdays, 11am to 4pm;
Sundays, 2pm to 5pm (before the Summer Concert series shows). It's an interesting and heartwarming exhibit, well worth your time to see, and particularly valuable for those born after the end of the Cold War.

MORE: The official website of Jam Session: America's Jazz Ambassadors.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 23, 2010 12:01 AM.

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