by Armand Lewis
In the early 1950s, with the Cold War heating up to a fevered pitch, rhetoric on both the U.S. and Soviet sides ratcheted up the propaganda as well as the weaponry, with literally every aspect of life, culture and technology promoted as being superior to the other side’s. While most instances of Soviet criticism of the U.S. could be (and basically were) completely disregarded, one area could not be so easily dismissed.
The violence and segregation of racism in 1940s and ‘50s America was touted by the Soviets as evidence of an unenlightened and barbaric country — and it wasn’t only the Russian press reporting on this. The popular press around the world; from India to Mexico, from Haiti to Great Britain, were all characterizing the U.S. through its racial conflict. This was not how the U.S. government wanted the rest of the world to view America.
Thus, in the coldest days of the Cold War, the U.S. State Department began a program to tell the American story and present American culture in a new way to people around the world — showing unity, cooperation and creativity in a uniquely American way. Instead of classical music, which would be neither novel nor even impressive to Europeans, who had some of the greatest classical orchestras in the world, or ballet, which could not hope to match the Soviet’s Bolshoi, the U.S. would send a jazz big band around the world.
Jazz represented American freedom, creativity and (in an integrated band) racial harmony and as such was the ideal export for American cultural exchange. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was chosen for this extended tour through Eastern Europe, South Asia and the Middle East, with a subsequent tour of South America. The 16-piece band Gillespie assembled for the tour would turn out to be not only his best big band, but also one of the finest big bands ever assembled.
No tapes have surfaced from the initial tour, though the group would record upon its return to the States in the summer of 1956. The resulting albums, Dizzy Gillespie World Statesman and Dizzy in Greece — both LPs actually recorded in a studio in New York — give us an idea of what was played in these State Department concerts.
But when the band embarked on its second tour in July — this time to South America — recordings were made. Dizzy Gillespie Big Band — Complete South American Tour Recordings (Solar 4569960) provides not only the State Department concerts, but also recordings of Gillespie with South American big bands.
Gillespie’s band for the State Department tours was comprised of some of the best musicians in jazz, including Quincy Jones on trumpet, Phil Woods on alto sax, Melba Liston on trombone, Benny Godson on tenor sax, Walter Davis Jr. on piano and Charlie Persip on drums with arrangements by Jones, Liston, Gillespie and Tadd Dameron (who was not present on the tour).
The program is heavy with Gillespies’ classic tunes, such as “A Night in Tunisia” and “Groovin’ High.” Also his Latin influenced “Manteca” and “Tin Tin Deo,” as well as current jazz hits like Horace Silver’s “Doodlin’.” All played with excitement and spirited solos by everyone involved.
One of the likely reasons that Gillespie was chosen as America’s first “jazz ambassador” was his playfulness and infectious sense of humor, which is well on display in both his introductions as well as his novelty numbers such as “I’m Confessin’,” in which he affectionately parodies Louis Armstrong and in “Hey Pete, Let’s Eat More Meat,” in which Gillespie scat-sings the melody before turning the tune into a tour-de-force of bop solos.
Gillespie also had a strong affinity for Latin music and was likely the first American jazz musician to incorporate Latin rhythms and song structures into jazz and going to South America allowed him access to Latin musicians that he could not have encountered anywhere else. As much fun as the State Department concerts are, the highlight of this album is the inclusion of six tunes Gillespie recorded on his own with South American orchestras for Brazilian and Argentinean radio.
“Capao’s Samba,” recorded in Rio de Janeiro with an unknown orchestra ranks among Gillespie’s best recordings of the period, while the last four selections — all recorded in Buenos Aires — display Dizzy with a more traditional South American orchestra of the period, including strings as well as rhythm, giving the selections a 1950s exotic film-noir feeling.
Gillespie’s tours for the State Department set the standard by which subsequent goodwill tours would be measured. Jazz masters such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and others would follow — including Benny Goodman’s tour of the Soviet Union in 1962 at the height of U.S./Soviet tensions. To this day, the State Department still sponsors international music tours around the world, though jazz now shares the stage with Rock, Hip-Hop and other musical forms.
Gillespie’s own time as a jazz ambassador may have influenced him to mount an only-slightly-joking write-in campaign for U.S. President in 1964. “Complete South American Tour Recordings” show just what a swinging time the country may have had if he’d won.
Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org