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Remembering Dizzy Gillespie's Jazz Diplomacy


Fifty years ago, Dizzy Gillespie led an international tour of jazz musicians to parts of Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South America. It was sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and marked the start of a new kind of cultural diplomacy. Mike O'Sullivan reports, a concert and panel discussion in Los Angeles recalled the landmark tour, and celebrated Gillespie's improvisational music.

It was 1956, at the height of the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union were locked in an ideological battle. U.S. officials worried that their pro-democracy message was not being heard.

At the suggestion of jazz fan and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the State Department tried something innovative, funding a tour by Gillespie and a specially formed jazz band. There were stops in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia, and later South America.

A commemorative concert at the University of Southern California recalled the landmark tour, with former Gillespie band members Jon Faddis on trumpet and James Moody on saxophone joining the USC jazz orchestra. They played some of Gillespie's signature numbers, including his composition "A Night in Tunisia."

The politician behind the tour, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., represented Harlem, a largely African American section of New York City. The congressman understood the power of music and used it in his campaigns, as his son, Adam Clayton Powell III, recalled in a panel discussion.

"What he would do is, on a hot Saturday afternoon during the campaign, this is before most people had air conditioning, before most people had television sets, certainly in Harlem, and he would open all of his campaign appearances with Dizzy Gillespie," he said.

He says thousands came for Dizzy's music and stayed for the politics.

Public Diplomacy Professor Nicholas Cull, of USC's Annenberg School for Communication, says jazz was a metaphor for the American political system, and Powell understood that.

"Because in jazz, you are not afraid to improvise. In jazz, you have to listen," he said. "And those are both profoundly central aspects of the American political system. And you could not listen to this music without experiencing those principles and sharing in that freedom."

International audiences already had a taste of jazz through a popular Voice of America show hosted by Willis Conover. The program had started the previous year and often featured Gillespie.

At stops along the historic tour, Gillespie and his band often played with local musicians, and in Argentina, discovered pianist Lalo Schifrin. He joined the band and went on to become an important composer of film and television scores.

Schifrin took part in the USC commemoration, and recalled that Argentina was open to the new music because the country had just gone through a dramatic political change. Dictator Juan Peron was removed from power the year before the band came.

"So they came at the right moment because there was a revolution, and Peron was deposed," said Schifrin. "There was a feeling of freedom in Argentina."

Legendary music producer Quincy Jones, just 23 at the time, was a trumpeter and music director for the Gillespie tour. He recalls an incident when jazz bridged the gap between America and its critics, after Cypriot students stoned the U.S. embassy in Athens. Jones says the band was in Ankara, Turkey, when a call came from the White House with a plea.

"'Send the Gillespie band over there! That band can handle it, you know.' And we played there and in the audience were all these revolutionary students," he said. "They stormed the stage afterwards. You know, we were scared to death - trust me. And they ran up on the stage and they grabbed Dizzy and put him up on their shoulders, and they said 'Dizzy, Dizzy, Dizzy.' That is the power of what the music is about."

The tour took place at a time when the band's mostly black musicians faced discrimination at home, and a U.S.-owned hotel in Argentina refused to let the band stay there.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a video message that the music of Dizzy Gillespie offered the hope of freedom at a time when liberty was denied to many at home. She says the innovative music conveyed the country's future promise through a liberating message that resonated with millions.