For the past eight decades, the State Department has relied on good old rag-timing, toe-tapping, bee-bopping jazz to unite peoples and cultures across the globe through a medley of musical exchange programs. Early programs such as the Jazz Ambassadors and Rhythm Road have led to contemporary exchanges like Next Level, Center Stage, OneBeat, Arts Envoy, Jazz Ambassadors Redux, and American Music Abroad. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken affirmed the centrality of cultural programming to U.S. foreign policy when he said: “America’s arts and culture are a major source of our national strength, our musicians captivate the world. Their work gets people to see each other’s humanity, build a sense of common purpose, change the minds of those who misunderstand us, and tell the American story in a way no policy or speech ever could.”
The origin story of jazz diplomacy as a pillar of foreign policy emerged in the era of Cold War competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union. In the face of dangerous tensions and heightened propaganda, the State Department set out to connect American jazz artists directly to international artists and foreign audiences to share this music, confront false narratives, and improve the public image of the United States. Beginning in 1956, the State Department sent American artists and Jazz Ambassadors abroad – as it still does today – understanding that jazz evolved from and reflects the diverse and imperfect fibers of American life and democracy.
Jazz Ambassadors included Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Sarah Vaughan. While they traveled in person, the Voice of America told this compelling story to millions more around the world with Willis Conover’s shortwave radio program. The Jazz Ambassadors’ success while traveling abroad also focused the domestic lens of American society even further on the racial inequities that those artists experienced at home, helping to usher in the Civil Rights era. Even though subject to discrimination, the Jazz Ambassadors evoked the essential American values of inclusion, freedom of expression, creativity, innovation, and respect for others by their example.
Today, we continue this mission with renewed urgency in the face of global challenges. From threats to democracy, to racial injustice, to climate change, jazz brings artists and communities together in harmony, providing freedom of expression and inspiring innovation within a framework of rules agreed upon in advance, mirroring American society at its best. Celebrating jazz as we do on International Jazz Day is a testament to the social power of music and our democratic system.
The legacy of the Jazz Ambassadors lives on in the State Department through American Music Abroad (AMA), where musicians of all genres share American music with audiences around the world. AMA exchanges include concerts, collaborative performances with local musicians, workshops, and jam sessions. Jazz continues to be central in our exchanges, which feature jazz greats of today like Huntertones, Gabrielle Stravelli, Laurin Talese, and Camille Thurman.
Jazz diplomacy features in other State Department exchange programs at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). The legendary Herbie Hancock will tour Jordan in May as an Arts Envoy for ECA. Jazz Ambassadors Redux, an ECA partnership with Quincy Jones Productions, showcases young jazz musicians, and resulted in between Quincy Jones and Justin Kauflin.
AMA has brought American artists virtually and in-person to posts around the world since 2013. For more about American Music Abroad, see the website here. Connect with the authors or learn more about State Department cultural programming by reaching out to firstname.lastname@example.org or ECAAMA@state.gov.
About the Authors: Sunsariay Cox is a student at Santa Monica College, a poet and portrait artist, and former intern with the Cultural Programs Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
J.P. Jenks is a Foreign Service Officer and Director of the American Music Abroad (AMA) program, the successor program to the Jazz Ambassadors, in the Cultural Programs Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Nora Gordon is a Foreign Service Officer on the Arts Envoy team in the Cultural Programs Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.