Wednesday, February 16, 2011

All that Jazz

At the fulcrum of John Brown's visit to our Public Diplomacy class, the philosophical musings of Mark Twain, and my personal fixation on musical expression lies one revolutionary tool, which will doubtless become the new buzzword in PD. Honestly, I would not be surprised if it became the basis for US foreign policy as a whole, or the foundation of a new world order. That thing, dear readers, is:


How did we not name this revelation sooner? We have employed it in the past, and impressed the world with the American gift of improvisation, syncopation, rhythm, blues, and distillation of the most compelling elements of three continents of music, but where is it now?Iin 1956 we sent renowned trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie and his band around the world promoting the US, using music to express what words could not, and having a profound effect on local audiences. The Cold War ended, we came out on top, and yet jazz got next to no credit and has faded into a world of vague nostalgia or worse, disdain. Why have we forgotten the music?

We have all learned that collaboration is the best form of diplomacy, but that broadcasting and dialogue serve a special purpose as well. Music can encompass all three, as performance, discussion, and group improvisational projects (jamming?) can easily win the hearts and minds of everyone involved, and create lasting bonds between people from any country.

Due to a cruel trick of history, jazz as we know it did not exist in the lifetime of Mark Twain, but he saw "the power of music, that magician of magician, who lifts his wand and says his mysterious word and all things real pass away and the phantoms of your mind walk before you clothed in flesh." Who could deny that music is the most emotionally exhilarating form of culture, and therefore the most potent form of cultural diplomacy? Furthermore, to briefly touch on this week's theme of the importance of credibility, who would dare to say that a jazz musician was insincere? John Brown has highlighted again and again our need for more attention to the presentation of high forms of American culture abroad, and I agree wholeheartedly and thus recommend a new American jazz tour, showcasing the freshest experimental artists from a new generation of jazz or jazz-inspired music.

Just a few days ago on Mountain Runner, Candace Burnham wrote a scathing condemnation of the use of jazz as a way to promote American values during the Cold War and today, but I would beg to differ. In fact, the State Department's Rhythm Road musician exchange program attempts to show the world some of the most dynamic and American musical genres, including gospel, bluegrass, and jazz, which otherwise might not be exported. The problem is that we Americans do not respect programs like these enough. I personally am relieved to know that these unique American styles are getting a chance to be appreciated abroad alongside the more marketable but less compelling Lady Gagas of our musically prolific nation.

What I would like to see is more respect and publicity for musicians that embody the American ideas that we so desperately seek to promote- I can think of little else that could help our image more than modern musicians presenting authentic and varied musical styles to the world and opening up a dialogue between cultures. We will end up with not only more appreciation and good will, but probably some amazing fusion music styles as well.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that cultural diplomacy is important, and music definitely has a role to play. However, like cultural diplomacy in general, it is impossible to prove a correlation with the end of the Cold War. This is the debate we’ve been seeing in our readings.

    I think cultural diplomacy gets more support if you highlight the benefits of dialogue rather than enjoyment or appreciation of the arts. Like you said, music brings people together. The most effective cultural programming is followed by discussion, and hopefully the development of mutual trust, understanding, and lasting relationships, which is really where the true value of cultural diplomacy lies.

    And as John Brown pointed out, there was a Russian desire for more American cultural events after the Cold War, but funding and support had dwindled. If we look at it in terms of competing influence, I wonder if the French and British were winning in the cultural arena, considering they held a wider variety of cultural events than did the U.S. One might argue that American culture was already more pervasive, but it appears that those that John Brown encountered were left unsatisfied with the American cultural products of the free market.

    One example of unofficial public diplomacy during the Cold War is the effect of the Beatles, banned by the Soviets. (I blogged about this last semester: There is a great documentary called “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin” that I link to. According to journalist Vladimir Posner, "the Beatles did more to undermine the system than any anti-Soviet literature that was passed from hand-to-hand underground." While the extent of the role of Beatlemania is debatable, the documentary illustrates the wide underground following that helped shape the thoughts and attitudes of the fans (at the very least.)