Performing in the Theatre of the Cold War: Race, Jazz, and United States Foreign Policy 

The 1950s and 1960s were critical decades during which American cultural diplomacy established its supremacy; yet the rest of the world seemed focused on the hypocrisy behind the prevailing racial inequality in a country boastful of its freedom and democracy. The Soviet Union was quick to notice, and publicised American politics as segregationist and its culture as decadent and immoral. In a bold propaganda move in 1956, the State Department strategically began to highlight jazz, African American musicians, and integrated bands as part of cultural diplomacy. This strategy prompted disapproval and commendation from state officials, both in the United States and the countries jazz artists visited. When jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie was chosen and announced as the first jazz ambassador to tour for the State Department, Louisiana Senator and Southern segregationist Allen J. Ellender opposed the decision by declaring that Gillespie’s music would reduce the American cultural image to ‘barbarians.’ Gillespie’s tour turned out to be one of the most successful official cultural presentations. 

Understanding American race relations and foreign policy during the early Cold War years is crucial to our understanding of intersections between music and politics. In order to portray a picture of racial equality in practice, nearly all jazz bands on tour featured Black and white musicians and an African American bandleader. Duke Ellington described his encounters with locals during his 1963 State Department tour of East and South Asia, especially those who were curious about racial equality in the United States, as: ‘The big question when they meet an American Negro is always the race problem, [but] we have all the problems of a free country.’ Lisa Davenport summarizes the outcome of State Department tours as the jazz diplomacy paradox, where ‘racial equality, integration, and American exceptionalism’ sometimes did not align with the realities of racial bias faced by African American jazz musicians. The ‘cultural oppression’ of the nation’s African American community came to symbolize ‘the cultural superiority of American democracy’ with the use of jazz in cultural presentations. Davenport also emphasizes how policymakers and State Department officials portrayed jazz as an authentic expression of American life, part of a powerful arsenal for the U.S. to win the cultural Cold War against the Soviet Union.  

In Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa, ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson argues that jazz and its discourse during the Civil Rights Movement had much in common with the politics of the time. Monson maps the changing political, social, and musical landscape through the perspective of musicians on State Department jazz tours and their interactions with the music industry, the media, and local audiences to highlight these parallels. Interviews, archival research, and analysis of recordings and performances reveal how Black and white performers had starkly different experiences based on race, and how their musical aesthetics embodied the tensions of the period. Meanwhile, Penny Von Eschen emphasizes the role played by African American jazz musicians and integrated bands in countering international criticism of U.S. racial tension and segregation.  

The domestic and international experiences of African American jazz musicians and integrated bands are discussed alongside the civil rights issues that plagued African Americans at the time. The State Department had received instructions from the Eisenhower administration to include jazz artists in Cultural Presentations, as jazz and African American artists would help shape global perceptions of America’s race relations favourably. Indirectly tackling sensitive issues was a typical feature of cultural diplomacy, and programming African Americans, jazz musicians, and integrated bands in cultural diplomacy tours would strategically put an end to domestic and foreign media coverage of racial tension in the U.S. The US State Department promptly announced its decision to include African American jazz artists in cultural diplomacy tours in a press conference on the steps of the House Office Building; domestic and foreign media speculated the decision as ‘inclusive’ propaganda in response to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954 and the recent lynching of Emmett Till in September 1955, both of which had attracted wide media coverage of the tense race relations in the United States.  

The State Department’s eagerness to frame jazz as representative of homogeneous American values and the use of African American jazz musicians and integrated bands to represent racial harmony and equality contributed to the success of U.S. cultural diplomacy. State Department cultural diplomacy tours helped to institutionalize jazz and include the genre in the American arts canon. Whether or not American jazz musicians ‘intended to subvert’ their government, their actions and message of goodwill supported the image that the State Department desired to project cultural diplomacy tours. United States cultural propaganda during the Cold War aimed to showcase mainstream jazz and African American artists as proof of improving race relations and status in American life, but the same propaganda failed to deceive international audiences at times, much to the surprise of government officials.  

With racial equality as a goal, the State Department and the United States Information Agency (USIA) increased African American representation in cultural diplomacy tours as a strategy to mitigate international criticism of domestic racial issues. In an interview with the Arkansas Gazette in September 1957, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles condemned domestic media for inaccurately portraying events and claimed that these ‘desegregation battles’ were not helpful to the United States image abroad, especially since Radio Moscow had been ‘chirping happily about the troubles of integration.’ To continue portraying a positive and unified image of the United States abroad (and also for damage control purposes), the USIA distributed pictures of integrated schools and accomplishments of African Americans to field offices as part of information services propaganda. Despite the public relations ‘hiccup’ during the 1957 Little Rock Crisis, the State Department continued its cultural diplomacy efforts with an emphasis on ‘Americana’ themed activities, with funding support from private foundations such as the Ford Foundation. The State Department continued to disseminate propaganda documents as official statements for field mission offices abroad in the wake of international media coverage of U.S. civil rights events, such as the Emmett Till verdict in 1955, Montgomery bus boycott in 1955—56, and Autherine Lucy’s denial of admission in 1956. However, African Americans involved with cultural diplomacy tours faced a difficult position in continuing to represent the State Department and American values while experiencing racial injustices and discrimination at home.  

Louis Armstrong, who rarely spoke out about racial issues, was vocal during the aftermath of the 1957 Little Rock Crisis and called off his imminent State Department tour to the Soviet Union. On 19 September 1957, the New York Times reported the news with the headline: ‘Louis Armstrong, Barring Soviet Tour, Denounces Eisenhower and Gov. Faubus.’ In the article, Armstrong declared, ‘the way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell… It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.’ In multiple interviews, Armstrong repeatedly stated that the goodwill tours should target American audiences before reaching out to Communist regions. That sentiment later made its way into one of the songs in the musical The Real Ambassadors: ‘Look here, what we need is a goodwill tour of Mississippi. Forget Moscow, when do we play New Orleans?’ 

Echoing Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and his band was the first jazz group and integrated band to travel abroad representing the State Department tours, but his band would not have been welcomed in Athens, Georgia despite success in Athens, Greece. It was far from amusing to African Americans such as Dizzy Gillespie to represent America’s freedom abroad while they continued to live in a segregated society at home. In his autobiography-biography, Gillespie’s response to State Department propaganda reinforcing equal opportunities for all Americans was: ‘I sort’ve liked the idea of representing America, but I wasn’t going to apologize for the racist policies.’ The 1957 Little Rock Crisis also created a chain of events in the U.S. and abroad that limited opportunities for African American musicians to continue in Cultural Presentations.  

From 1957 to 1960, State Department officials showed reluctance to send all-Black jazz groups on tour and opted instead for integrated and all-White bands to travel abroad, representing the State Department. A combination of originality and artistry, together with growing media attention, made Dave Brubeck and his band the ideal candidate to represent American culture, appealing to ‘high culture’ audiences in Eastern Europe. While Brubeck had a successful cultural diplomacy tour abroad, his quartet had difficulty scheduling performances at universities in the South because of the band’s integrated nature. For example, the University of Georgia’s policy for visiting integrated groups requested that Black members be replaced with white members, which Brubeck refused to do; in doing so, the band reportedly lost forty-thousand dollars during the entire tour season and thus indicting Jim Crow America.  

In aiming to reach global audiences with American values and culture, State Department officials expected for cultural diplomacy to be eagerly accepted abroad. However, much of the global reception of American ideals and cultural diplomacy propaganda during the Cold War was affected by U.S. domestic and foreign policy issues. While cultural diplomacy tours exemplified jazz as an American treasure around the world, they failed to create the same effect among domestic audiences at the same time and in years to come. While music did not have the capacity to break down political borders and distrust during the Cold War, jazz as an American invention transcended political action in helping America win the cultural Cold War. 

The 1961 Lagos Festival offers an interesting insight into the intersection of the Cold War, decolonisation, and the Civil Rights Movement, and the role of an African American elite in this. On the one hand, Africa was seen as a positive example: ‘In many ways African Negroes as far south as the Congo, are making more rapid progress now than American Negroes in the four hardcore, bitterly racist states’, AMSAC director John A. Davis wrote in 1961. On the other hand, there was a somewhat paternalistic ‘desire to help the new African nations’, both economically and politically. The significance of ‘acting’ and ‘theatricality’ in the Cold War acted as ‘key weapon’ during the Cold War, both in the public space and the media, used by anti-Communists and those on the radical left alike. In African countries such as Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria, the United States Information Service used radio broadcasts, films, and publications to counter the negative media coverage of American segregation by presenting positive images of American life. Thus, the boundaries between ‘public diplomacy’ and ‘propaganda’ were often blurry.  

Written by Jack Bennett


Davenport, Lisa. “The Paradox of Jazz Diplomacy: Race and Culture in the Cold War.” in African Americans in U.S. Foreign Policy: From the Era of Frederick Douglass to the Age of Obama, edited by Linda Heywood, Allison Blakely, Charles R. Stith, and Joshua C. Yesnowitz. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015.  

Monson, Ingrid. Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 

Saunders, Frances S. The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. New York: New Press, 1999. 

Von Eschen, Penny M. Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004.  

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