The Jazz Ambassadors: Intersections of American Foreign Power and Black Artistry in Duke Ellington's Far East Suite
During the height of the Cold War, the US State Department sponsored a series of racially integrated “Jazz Ambassador” tours in order to project proof of American talent and egalitarianism abroad. Representing and wielding the cultural influence of a nation that still denied many Black Americans basic freedoms, musicians such as Duke Ellington were compelled to navigate complex positions of social, political, and artistic power while on tour.
Scholarly discussions of Ellington’s Far East Suite, a composition inspired by his travels to India and the Middle East, have tended to interpret its impressionistic depictions of the “exotic” either as evidence of a superior cultural sensitivity or as the straightforward continuation of a white Orientalist musical tradition. I propose a third view based on the overlapping and racialized power dynamics of jazz ambassadorship itself: Ellington uses conventional jazz tropes rather than absorbing foreign musical influences in the Far East Suite in order to assert the independent expressive power of jazz to represent the other, thereby elevating Black American jazz to the status of a universal artform.
This nuanced perspective on the possibilities of music to connect cultures was unmistakably colored by Ellington’s active engagement in a Cold War foreign policy campaign that sought to project American power around the world in the form of jazz. At the same time, Ellington and other such “jazz ambassadors” of the 50s and 60s continuously grappled with the deep contradictions that arose from showcasing the supposed freedom and egalitarianism of a country that still treated Black Americans with a mixture of derision, disdain, and outright hatred. Finally, the mirage of vaguely “exotic” impressions Ellington paints of India exemplifies his and other jazz ambassadors’ complex participation in Orientalist traditions of composition, for instance in works such as the Far East Suite. Ultimately, by positioning themselves as capable of evoking and representing the “exotic other,” composers such as Ellington legitimized and elevated Black American jazz as an artform with the power to view rather than merely to be viewed.
As the United States and the Soviet Union vied for global influence in the decades following WWII, a new paradigm of “soft-power diplomacy” arose. With stockpiles of nuclear weapons capable of unfathomable death and destruction at their fingertips, the two great powers were obliged to turn away from outright military confrontation, and instead fight their battles on the plane of ideas, arts, symbols, and culture. To that end, the newly established United States Information Agency (USIA) fielded a number of propagandistic radio programs intended to make it past the censors of the Iron Curtain and reach directly into the “hearts and minds” of people they could win to the American cause. There were several educational programs that explicitly extolled the values of American freedom and democracy, such as “Radio Free Europe” and “Radio Liberty,” but U.S. operatives “quickly caught on to the fact that jazz was more valuable than didactic programming” as international listeners rated Willis Conover’s Jazz show on “Voice of America” as by far the most popular and the least condescending (Von Eschen 16, Fig. 1). The world’s immediate veneration for Conover and the jazz greats he aired—from Dizzy Gillespie to Dave Brubeck to Duke Ellington—set the stage for a series of State Department-sponsored diplomatic jazz tours that paraded these same adored figures and their music around the globe during the 1950s and 1960s.
Despite the feel-good atmosphere of these tours, they nonetheless remained inextricably connected to underlying sinister calculations of America’s Cold War military strategy. The State Department sent the jazz ambassadors “into the very teeth of global crises where U.S. and Soviet interests clashed,” such that they often found themselves quite near to the hazards of proxy wars and coups d’état (Dillard 43). Moreover, the routes of these jazz tours often precisely contoured the channels of foreign struggle, where the US and the Soviets competed for influence over nonaligned countries of the “third world” in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Indeed, Dizzy Gillespie’s first tour in 1956 proceeded along the “crescent of crisis” from the Middle East to Southern Europe, thereby “navigating Eisenhower’s conception of a ‘perimeter defense’” against Soviet expansion (Dillard 44). America’s more materialistic interests also unmistakably mapped onto the routes of jazz diplomacy: “it was no accident” that Gillespie’s first performance in Abadan, Iran occurred “‘to the smell of crude oil and the sound of gunfire from nearby Iraq’…in a country rich in that coveted Cold War commodity” (Dillard 44). More broadly, American operators relentlessly fought the nationalizing impulses of former colonies to establish a paradigm of “global economic integration” that would open “the world’s markets, industrial infrastructure, and raw materials” to the West (Von Eschen 28). Therefore, several jazz tours, including Louis Armstrong’s journey to the Congo in 1960 and Ellington’s to Iraq in 1963, were accompanied by covert CIA operations to topple local leaders seen as antagonistic or dangerous (Von Eschen 133). For their part, the Jazz Ambassadors were neither completely aware nor “entirely innocent” of the “Janus-faced power” of their sponsors’ political and military agendas, which often involved exploiting the moments of good faith engendered by jazz appreciation as a cover for clandestine acts of violence (Dillard 48-9).
Transforming jazz into an “all-American export” required imbuing its musical philosophy with a broadly defined set of American values, thereby erasing its origins as a unique expression of the Black American experience. Propagandists used “Jazz’s complex translation of collective expression and individual voices” as “a master trope to propagate U.S. American culture as democratic, egalitarian, and individual” (Raussert 196). Indeed, Conover mirrors this conception on his VOA show, describing jazz as “‘structurally parallel to the American political system’” in that musicians are free to improvise and make their own decisions within a generally agreed-upon set of rules concerning harmonic progression, meter, tempo, and key (Dillard 41). In contrast to the idea that jazz exemplified American egalitarianism, Black artists understood jazz quite differently, as an expression of a yet unfinished Black struggle for equality, and a product of the pain of existence in an oppressive society. Even Ellington, who frequently called jazz “America’s classical music,” also described its plantation roots as Black slaves’ “‘reaction…to the tyranny we endured. What we could not say openly we expressed in music”’ (Dillard 48). Thus, to Ellington, rather than paralleling America’s tradition of free political expression, jazz emerged as an alternative outlet for Black voices that were stifled in other realms of American life.
In addition to these conceptual tensions, those involved in the jazz tours had to grapple with the fundamental contradiction of using Black musicians to demonstrate American egalitarianism while the American South remained in the brutal grip of Jim Crow segregation.
The Soviets frequently pointed to the chasm between the espoused ideals and concrete realities of American race relations as evidence of deep-rooted hypocrisy, thereby systematically undermining US claims to moral supremacy. American politicians worked to counter this narrative by elevating Black musicians to prominence as cultural ambassadors and beloved celebrities who could both smooth the edges of racial antagonism and provide physical evidence of some Blacks’ ascendence to high status “even in the midst of social repression” (Davenport 25). Nevertheless, venomous backlash against the tours and radio programs from domestic conservatives proved that the image the State Department was projecting was to some extent an illusion. Conservative attacks against what they deemed to be “‘a plot to mongrelize America’” became so constant and so vocal that officials ultimately attempted to conceal evidence of racially integrated bands and audiences from regions of America where those same concerts would be illegal under Jim Crow (Dillard 42, Fig. 2). These efforts add shades of gray to the simple binary that the Soviet Union was a censoring nation and the US was not. The State Department’s dependence on “the blackness of musicians to legitimate America’s global agendas” also complicates their claims about the universal power of jazz to transcend race (Von Eschen 4).
At the intersection of these many paradoxes, Black jazz ambassadors themselves were compelled to navigate an exceedingly complex and often conflicting set of positionalities, including that of Americans, Black people, foreign diplomats, entertainers, and tourists in far-flung lands. W.E.B. Du Bois addresses the intersection of just a few of these identities with his theory of “double-consciousness,” which he defines as a sense of always looking at oneself through others’ eyes:
In some ways, the task of representing their country abroad necessitated the subordination of the jazz ambassadors’ Blackness to their American-ness, in order to “close ranks” and present a united front against the Soviets (Von Eschen 20). Yet at the same time, the ambassadorial role did not prevent these figures from loudly protesting American segregation and racial discrimination; rather, their high-profile status as musical diplomats increased the platform for and political leverage of their remarks. Dizzy Gillespie maintained that, while he “‘sort of liked the idea of representing America,’” he wasn’t going to “‘apologize’” or “‘make any excuses’” for its virulent racism (Dillard 45). Jazz greats also insisted on evidence of domestic progress toward racial equality as a precondition for touring on America’s behalf. Famously, Louis Armstrong, whose public persona oscillated between “success-oriented popular entertainer” and outraged social critic (Raussert 200), canceled a state-sponsored tour in the wake of protests against school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, disavowing the US government and allegedly declaring, “‘it’s getting so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country’” (Davenport 63-4). Similarly, when Ellington set out for the Middle East in 1963, his patriotism and faith in American democracy was in large part shaped by the progress of the civil rights movement, which “created the conditions under which he could endorse the potential of the United States to enter the modern world” (Von Eschen 124).
While on tour abroad, the jazz ambassadors encountered new musical cultures and traditions whose influence on their subsequent compositions was reflected and filtered through these multifaceted identities. The products of cross-cultural interactions across the non-aligned countries of the world, these works ranged from Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” to Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk”—but it was Ellington who attempted the most ambitious scale of representation in his Far East Suite, inspired by his 1963 tour to the Middle East and India (Fig. 3, Fig. 4). Several theorists have proposed that Ellington’s own experience as a Black American jazz musician whose own music had been exoticized throughout his career made him hypersensitive to the dangers of appropriating or essentializing another culture, and that therefore, he was careful to emphasize his subjectivity while representing the other in the Far East Suite. For instance, Mark Lomanno argues that in the first movement of the Suite, entitled “Tourist Point of View,” Ellington’s isolation of various individual instrumental voices through extended solos highlights “the role of the speaker” in cultural interpretation and focuses “the audience’s gaze on the Orchestra as interlocutors in the musical narrative about their tour and the cultures they encountered” (Lomanno 156). In addition, these theorists argue that Ellington’s reliance on traditional jazz structures and tropes throughout the suite represents a conscious decision to foreground the limitations of his authority to depict Eastern cultures—a choice to use his own musical language rather than presuming to truly grasp theirs. John Hasse describes the Suite as “‘tone paintings of Ellington’s and [Billy] Strayhorn’s impressions filtered through the blues and other musical resources they had been using for decades’” (Lomanno 157). In this view, Ellington’s unique experience separates him from white Western composers who engaged in Orientalism, and from the power dynamics that often problematize their work.
However, a closer look at the musical details of the Far East Suite challenges this harmonious narrative. Within the first minute of “Tourist Point of View,” baritone saxophonist Henry Carnell plays an Orientalizing convention, the diminished scale “snake charmer” formula that reduces Indian culture to a mere musical signifier for the “mysterious” Eastern other (Von Eschen 146). In the introduction of the second movement, “Bluebird of Delhi,” a brass figure on parallel open fifths presents a possible connection to the drone, a staple of classical Indian music, but quickly abandons this pretension by changing pitches—and neither do Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet ornamentations at all emulate the improvisations of a Hindustani player exploring a particular raga (Jackson 523). Travis Jackson argues that, despite witnessing traditional Indian dabke, Ellington only vaguely refers to its dance rhythms by adding an accent on the final beat of a six-note pattern in some sections of the movement entitled “Depk” (indeed, Ellington wrote that, after the performance, “all I could remember…was the kick on the sixth beat”), thereby missing an essential 3-2 tension between music and dancers (Jackson 524). Finally, earlier versions of the movements “Mount Harissa” and “Isfahan” have been discovered under alternative non-Oriental titles (“Nob Hill” and “Elf,” respectively), indicating that they might not have been originally intended for the Suite at all (Lomanno 152). Ultimately, a listener might identify evidence of a through-line of “Eastern” musical influence beyond geographically evocative titles “only through the widest leaps and with the most speculative logic” (Jackson 531).
Based on the superficial nature of these references, perhaps Ellington’s choices in the Far East Suite should be attributed more so to dismissiveness than to cultural sensitivity. His philosophies elevating a nebulous foreign “influence” and evocation over direct mimicry or imitation are not entirely unique, but are mirrored in the “conceptual Orientalist” nature of several works by Steve Reich, Henry Cowell, and John Cage (Jackson 522). Certainly, Ellington also displays the same reductionist attitude as other Western Orientalist composers in his own musings on Indian music; for instance, he rejected becoming influenced “‘too strongly’” because of an alleged “‘great sameness’” that he detected “‘beginning in Arabic countries and going through India all the way to Ceylon [Sri Lanka]’” (Jackson 518). He also dismissed Indian and Middle Eastern rhythms by claiming “‘I don’t think there is anything new there’” not already discovered by “‘musicians who had been there before us’” (Jackson 518). These sentiments represent a quasi-colonialist attitude where the cosmopolitan Western musician-explorer can pick and choose the most novel elements from non-Western cultures (viewed as static and timeless) and discard the rest (Jackson 520). Surely it would make sense that Ellington’s particular form of Orientalism was bound up in the very same project of militant American exceptionalism that the State Department jazz tours espoused…yet, just like the dissonance between Ellington’s dream of racial equity in America and the mission of the jazz tours, shouldn’t the Far East Suite convey something more than a single-minded imperialist superiority? Moreover, if someone with the exceptional “aural acuity” of Ellington claimed not to hear distinctions between musics of such diverse regions, it could only be the result of a purposeful, strategic rejection of that complexity (Jackson 521).
The Far East Suite presents a distinct artistic approach centered on Ellington’s doubly-conscious positionality as a Black American jazz musician. Rather than preaching an egalitarian solidarity with foreign musical cultures, or projecting American superiority, Ellington harnessed the power of musical Orientalism in order to prove jazz’s potency as a distinctly American and distinctly Black artform that was nonetheless capable of discursive representation. Throughout Ellington’s career, “his central impulsion was to honor African-American culture; to glory in it; to hold it up to the world for applause,” goals for which he had battled the forces of prejudice and hate for decades (Green 230). After witnessing the enhancement of jazz’s image from a disreputable and scandalous music “routinely associated with drugs and crime” (Von Eschen 3) to an American export celebrated on the world’s stage, Ellington merely seized this new global platform to further “promote the dignity of black people and their culture” (Dillard 49).
Thus, the Far East Suite’s preference for “vague inspiration and fleeting impressions” over deeper forms of influence provides an unequivocal demonstration that the expressive powers of Black American jazz could encompass any narrative association, elicit any emotion, and evoke any place on the planet without the aid of any external accessories (Jackson 532). The adulating reception Ellington’s band received from international audiences while on tour must also have reaffirmed these already firmly held convictions (Green 232). As the high art-form Ellington believed it to be, jazz’s musical world was expansive enough to contain the physical world within its stylistic borders, and thus rejected additional material from that world as extraneous to its central artistic project. In Ellington’s view, jazz needed nothing but to prove its own legitimacy and value to a world, and specifically to one nation within that world, which continued to deny equal rights and opportunities to Black Americans.
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