In 1968, the U.S. State Department created the Jazz Ambassadors program, hiring leading American Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington to be represent the U.S. overseas, particularly to improve the public image of the U.S. in light of criticism from the Soviet Union around racial inequality and racial tension.

The idea behind the State Department tours was to counter Soviet propaganda portraying the United States as culturally barbaric. Jazz was the country’s “Secret Sonic Weapon” (as a 1955 headline in The New York Times put it).

The Jazz Ambassador tours, as they were called, lasted weeks, sometimes months, and made an impact, attracting huge, enthusiastic crowds.

Gillespie made the State Department’s first goodwill jazz tour, starting out in March 1956 with an 18-piece band and traveling all over southern Europe, the Middle East and south Asia. The band’s last stop was Athens, where students had recently stoned the local headquarters of the United States Information Service in protest of Washington’s support for Greece’s right-wing dictatorship. Yet many of those same students greeted Gillespie with cheers, lifting him on their shoulders, throwing their jackets in the air and shouting: “Dizzy! Dizzy!”

When Armstrong arrived in the Congo as part of a 1960 tour through Africa, drummers and dancers paraded him through the streets on a throne. As late as 1971, when Ellington came to Moscow, an American diplomat wrote in his official report that crowds greeted the Duke as something akin to “a Second Coming.” One young Russian yelled, “We’ve been waiting for you for centuries!”

Join us for our July 29-30 JAS Cafe Shows, celebrating U.S. Ambassador Louis Armstrong’s 1956 recording with Ella Fitzgerald, performed by Byron Stripling & Carmen Bradford. Tickets available here.