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The Jazz Ambassadors

The Cold War and civil rights collide in this remarkable story of music, diplomacy and race. Beginning in 1955, when America asked its greatest jazz artists to travel the world as cultural ambassadors, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and their racially diverse band members faced a painful dilemma: How could they represent a country that still practiced Jim Crow segregation?

AIRED: 5/04/2018 | EXPIRES: 5/03/2021 | 00:55:31
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[ Up-tempo jazz music plays ] ♪♪ -At this remarkable concert in Accra, West Africa, Louis Armstrong and his All Stars played before a crowd of more than one hundred thousand people.

♪♪ This was Armstrong's first time in Africa, and he was amazed that his fame had spread so far and wide.

♪♪ The U.S. government took note.

The global popularity of Armstrong and his peers got foreign policy officials thinking that jazz could give America an edge in the Cold War.

♪♪ 1956 is the year America began sending its greatest jazz musicians around the world to serve as Cold War cultural ambassadors.

♪♪ -In February 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower -'The Jazz Ambassadors' was made possible in part by... delivered his first State of the Union Address.

-There is but one sure way to avoid global war, and that is to win the Cold War.

[ Applause ] -The Cold War standoff between America and the Soviet Union that had begun nearly a decade earlier now threatened nuclear holocaust.

-We have incontrovertible evidence that Soviet Russia possesses atomic weapons.

-Describing a world paralyzed by fear, he laid out his vision for a new U.S. foreign policy.

-The policy we embrace must be a coherent global policy.

The freedom we cherish and defend in Europe and in the Americas is no different from the freedom that is in peril in Asia.

-As the 1950s unfolds, it becomes clear that the Cold War is going to be a war of stalemate on the battlefield, that once both sides are known to have nuclear weapons, they're going to have to limit their military confrontation.

And so the Cold War evolves into a struggle for international opinion.

♪♪ In 1953, Eisenhower creates a single United States Information Agency, USIA, as a one-stop shop for the engagement of global public opinion.

♪♪ ♪♪ [ Typewriter clacking, indistinct conversation ] -Throughout the world, there is widespread misunderstanding of the United States.

The Communists are quick to take advantage of this in the lies they are spreading about us.

This is the job of the United States Information Agency.

-In many areas of the world, the people are not yet committed in the struggle between freedom and slavery.

These regions are crucial, for if these people are lost, strategic areas and irreplaceable resources go with them.

-USIA incorporates Voice of America Radio, a radio station broadcasting on the short wave in multiple languages, providing news for international audiences.

-[ Speaking German ] -One aspect of American culture that U.S. diplomats preferred not to show the rest of the world was segregation.

But the issue of American racial discrimination was taken up by the Soviets and trumpeted enthusiastically around the globe.

♪♪ -♪ Sometimes I feel like a motherless child ♪ ♪ Sometimes I feel like a motherless child ♪ ♪ Sometimes I feel like a motherless child ♪ ♪ A long ways from home -The Soviet international media did not let the issue drop.

Day after day, they were drawing attention to the lynchings, the unfair convictions, racial depravation.

They made sure that audiences around the world knew about this.

And there was enough truth in their reports for this to be a profound challenge to America's international credibility.

-President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were acutely aware of criticisms on the part of the Soviet Union of racism in America and criticisms among the emerging countries of Africa, India, Middle East.

They knew they were profoundly vulnerable around this issue.

♪♪ -So many people on Capitol Hill are hostile to USIA and the State Department speaking out about America's racial problems.

But there's one man who takes a stand in the opposite direction, and that is Adam Clayton Powell, an African-American congressman.

And he does an amazing job of demanding that racial issues be included in American public diplomacy.

♪♪ -Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was married to Hazel Scott, an accomplished jazz performer.

Together, they made a true East Coast power couple, effortlessly melding New York showbiz and Washington politics.

-Growing up, politics and music were intertwined daily, if not hourly.

[ Laughs ] My parents entertained a great deal, and the people who would be over for dinner would be the Ellington Band.

♪♪ -Powell lobbied Congress for positive engagement with the newly liberated nations of Asia and Africa.

But when his arguments fell on deaf ears, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

In April 1955, he traveled to Bandung, Indonesia, to attend the world's first Afro-Asian Conference.

-Thousands thronged the streets of the Indonesian city of Bandung, where the leaders of Asia and Africa gather for a momentous conference.

Twenty-nine nations, containing half the world's population, are represented.

-This is the first intercontinental conference of colored peoples, so-called colored peoples, in the history of mankind.

[ Applause ] -In the view of many in the United States, this was a convening of Communist adversaries of the United States.

So President Eisenhower, Secretary of State, both said, 'Don't go.'

He actually got a credential as a journalist and went to Bandung.

-You hope to represent the American viewpoint?

-I not only hope to represent the American viewpoint as we commonly think of it, but as a Negro member of the United States Congress, I hope to establish a bond between our country and their countries, which will guarantee world peace, because no one would dare defy the peoples of Asia, Africa, and North America.

-His colleagues in Congress assumed, along with many people who were in Indonesia at the conference, that he was there to bash the United States, and instead, he defends the United States.

♪♪ When he returned from Indonesia, he gets a standing ovation in Congress.

It was the first time I have seen that kind of reception given to him.

-When Powell comes back, he sees black culture, in particular jazz, as the best way to intervene in the Cold War cultural conflict, to win over the kind of hearts and minds of the countries in Africa and Asia.

-In retrospect, it seems obvious that my father would have this idea, but at the time, it was without precedent.

-His credentials burnished by his success in Bandung, Powell convinced Eisenhower and top-ranking foreign policy officials in late 1955 that jazz, played by black or mixed-race bands, could radically improve America's image in the non-white countries of the world.

-We've just decided that we're going to shift the emphasis to our jazz, our Negro spirituals, and send these artists over where they can reach the masses of the people of Asia and Africa, and one of the people who we're planning to use, my friend Dizzy Gillespie, who's the father of modern jazz.

-What do you think about that, Dizzy?

-I don't think we'll have any trouble converting the people over to our style of music.

-You think they'll dig that?

-I think they'll dig it very nicely.

-This is what you might call a cool war, rather than a Cold War. -[ Laughs ] Very good.

The weapon that we will use is the cool one.

[ Trumpet playing ] ♪♪ [ Scatting ] [ Rhythmic clapping ] [ Jazz music plays ] ♪♪ -[ Speaks indistinctly ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -I was very honored to have been chosen as the first jazz musician to represent the United States on a cultural mission.

They had many people they could have chosen as the first one.

And I sort of liked the idea of representing America, but I wasn't going over there to apologize for the racist policies of America.

♪♪ -They chose Dizzy because he was famous.

He already had an international following.

But what was not clear, I think, to the State Department, that Dizzy had a history of political activism.

He was once a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, not so much 'cause he believed in it, but because in the 1930s, you can get a gig at a CP event.

Here's someone who was always very outspoken about civil rights and human rights, so he was the unlikely choice politically.

He was a very likely choice in the commercial realm.

-He was not gonna sugarcoat some of the horrors that was going on to black people at that time.

He was not going to get America off the hook.

And that's what he said, and we all basically felt the same way.

♪♪ -When the State Department suggested a pre-tour briefing, Dizzy gave them a little taste of what was to come.

[ Applause ] -I've got 300 years of briefing.

I know what they've done to us, and I'm not going to make any excuses.

If they ask me any questions, I'm going to answer them as honestly as I can.

♪♪ -When it came to musical preparations, Dizzy entrusted his orchestra to a rising young arranger, one Quincy Jones.

-I was 22 years old, and Dizzy came to me and said, 'I would like you to be musical director, arranger, and trumpet player with the band.'

I was so happy, I was like in heaven, honey, to think he'd have that trust in me at 22 years old to be in charge of his -- my -- my god's band.

We went, and it was the most incredible thing I've ever seen.

We went to Iran; Karachi, Pakistan; Aleppo, Damascus.

♪♪ -People loved the music. They really loved it.

It was so beautiful, man, to get that kind of response, man, from people who had never heard this music before.

They loved the music, loved it a lot.

♪♪ -We had a complete American assortment of blacks, whites, males, females, Jews and Gentiles in the band.

We really did a great job, the job we were supposed to do, to try to bring the people together.

-Having made it as far East as Pakistan, the group turned back West, arriving in Turkey in late April, when the call came that they were urgently needed in Greece.

-5,000 Greeks stage an anti-American riot in Athens.

Angry because the U.S.

wouldn't back a move in the United Nations to free the island of Cyprus from British rule, they march on America's Embassy and official offices in the capital and treat them to a hail of rocks.

-In Greece, kids from Cyprus were stoning the American Embassy in Athens, and the government said, 'Send the Gillespie Band.'

We were like the kamikaze band. Like, 'Send them -- Wherever there's problems, send this band.'

-The first show we played was a matinee for students only, the same people who'd thrown the rocks.

-We almost had a riot.

We had people outside who were demanding to come in, and they couldn't get in.

[ Jazz music plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -And so we played the concert, and all these guys were in the audience, and they charged the stage afterwards and ran up on the stage and grabbed Dizzy and put him on their shoulders and said, 'Dizzy, Dizzy!'

That's the power of jazz, you know.

And we were so shocked, 'cause we thought we were getting ready to get hurt.

-The newspaper headline said, 'Greek students lay down rocks [Chuckles] and roll with Diz.'

♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] -The State Department's getting these rave reviews coming back, and they're just then wanting to do more.

But the whole idea of the tours is challenged in Congress by Southern segregationists and by conservatives, who bring the budget and say, 'Why are you spending this money on sheer noise?

How could you send Dizzy Gillespie abroad to represent our country?'

♪♪ -When we got back, the Eisenhower administration turned out to be a bunch of turds.

They hated us.

Some of the senators said that the band sounded like a blare of trumpets and a crash of cymbals.

They really tore us up, man, said we sounded like crap.

And we were very hurt by that, man, because we were very proud of our band.

We're talking about 1956.

This was all before Martin Luther King.

Wasn't no civil rights then.

The powers that be at that time were basically racist people.

[ ] -Despite the political backlash that followed Gillespie's triumphant tour, evidence that international fans couldn't get enough of American jazz kept on mounting.

There was no better example than the torrent of worldwide fan mail applauding Voice of America's new radio show 'Music U.S.A.,' hosted by a silky-voiced jazz aficionado, Willis Conover.

-It's the Voice of America jazz hour.

Willis Conover speaking from Washington, D.C.

♪♪ How do you do?

This is Willis Conover in Washington, D.C.

Some music scholars have said that jazz, which was born here in the United States, is the one new art form in the world.

Others say jazz is more than an art, it's a way of life.

Jazz guarantees each musician absolute freedom within a framework of cooperation.

-Conover understands that jazz is more than just music.

He sees it as being profoundly political.

-Conover's weekly radio shows, often featuring interviews with musicians, and the international success of Gillespie's tour convinced State Department chiefs that jazz diplomacy had serious potential.

Now they set their sights on getting possibly the most famous musician in the world, in jazz or otherwise, to stump for Uncle Sam.

-Louis Armstrong, the name which means America to more people than anyone else I can think of over a long period of time.

What can you say about Louis, except, Louis, take it.

-Well, what you say, gizzard?

[ Laughs ] My man.

[ 'Mack the Knife' plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪ Oh, the shark has ♪ Pretty teeth, dear ♪ And he shows them ♪ Pearly white ♪ Just a jackknife -In the mid-1950s, Armstrong rode a wave of global popularity.

His regular international tours were mobbed.

-None of Armstrong's previous European tours got any of the publicity like his trips in '55 and '56.

There was riots in France. I mean, people just going crazy.

[ Cheering ] -A front-page story in claimed America's best Cold War weapon was a blue note in a minor key and that Armstrong was its best ambassador.

♪♪ And in the autumn of 1956, United Artists released a documentary about Armstrong in movie theaters nationwide, hosted by newsman Edward R. Murrow.

-Louis Armstrong, you're sort of an ambassador with a horn.

You been having a good time?

-Oh, everywhere, everywhere.

I'm just trying to hit all the countries and with all the musicians after we get off, and we go to a party or something where there's a band.

All we do is pick up the instrument.

'What you gonna play?' Just start playing.

Same as we did in the tailgates in New Orleans.

-During the making of the documentary, the producers arranged for Armstrong to visit the British West African colony of the Gold Coast, soon to become the independent republic of Ghana.

♪♪ -[ Laughs ] [ Crowd cheering ] When we got off the plane, they had a little tune.

♪ All for you ♪ Love for you, Louis ♪ Za-la-la Trumpets, nine trumpets playing so beautiful, so I pulled mine out and played with them.

Thank you, folks.

We'd like to lay this next one on the Prime Minister, 'Black and Blue.'

[ 'Black and Blue' plays ] -That film footage of Armstrong in the Gold Coast, which is about to become modern Ghana, with Kwame Nkrumah crying, hearing a song that is iconic, it's iconic because it is about the internal pain, the interiority of racism.

What does it feel like?

What does it feel like to want to be other than yourself?

[ Scatting ] [ Cheers and applause ] -It's a song that speaks to not just the black American condition, but the condition of all who have experienced some form of structural racism.

-By the end of 1956, rumors circulated that Armstrong would be America's next cultural ambassador, traveling to the Soviet Union for a truly groundbreaking tour.

-Would you be interested in making a tour of Russia?

-Contract negotiations between USIA and Armstrong's management ran on through the summer of 1957.

Then in September, an unfolding school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, caused Armstrong to question his role as a prospective ambassador for his country.

-Nine African-American students tried to integrate Central High School, Little Rock.

Governor Faubus basically said, you know, 'We're not going to integrate,' and allowed mobs to show up to intimidate and threaten these -- these children.

-It will not be possible to restore or to maintain order and protect the lives and property of the citizens if forcible integration is carried out tomorrow in the schools of this community.

[ Indistinct shouting ] -The whole world watched as the tension escalated, yet President Eisenhower refused to send federal troops to guarantee the nine black children safe passage into Little Rock High.

-The white population are determined to prevent colored students from going to the school their own children attend.

Picketing the school, they clash with the police.

-What are you going to tell the Russians when they ask you about the Little Rock incident?

-That all depends what time they send me over there.

I don't think they should send me now, unless they straighten that mess down South, and for good.

I mean, not just to blow over, to cut it out, I think.

Because, uh, they've been ignoring the Constitution, although they're taught it in school, but when they go home, their parents tell them different, say, 'You don't have to abide by it, because we've been getting away with it a hundred years.'

So, uh, nobody tells on each other, so don't bother with it.

So if they ask me what's happening, if I go now, I can't tell a lie.

That's one thing.

Ain't no lying the way I feel about it.

-Thank you. -Okay.

-Armstrong was on tour in North Dakota as the crisis ratcheted up.

-He does an interview with a young reporter who notices Armstrong watching the TV footage.

So he says, 'Do you have any comments?'

Armstrong just goes off.

He said Eisenhower had no guts, and he called Faubus an uneducated mother[bleep] which they had to clean up and call an 'uneducated plowboy.'

The next day it hits the wire, goes all around the world, and it is headline news.

♪♪ -In late September, Armstrong withdrew from negotiations to visit the USSR.

♪♪ -With what happened in Little Rock and Armstrong's statement that the government can go to hell, the official aims of the program backfired tremendously.

♪♪ [ Men singing in native language ] -On October 4, 1957, the Soviets scored a major technological victory when they became the first superpower to put a satellite in orbit.

♪♪ -It's difficult to underestimate how spectacular the launch of Sputnik was as a propaganda achievement.

For many people in the world, that single event established the Soviet Union not just as a political wave of the future, but as a scientific wave of the future.

-Outraged by both Little Rock and Sputnik, Duke Ellington wrote an article titled 'The Race for Space,' in which he argued that racism was losing America the Cold War.

♪♪ -Because so many Americans persist in the notion of the master race, millions of Negroes are deprived the proper schooling and are the last hired and first fired in those industries necessary for the progress of the country.

-This was a very difficult moment for the government, but to have stopped the program would have really been to concede defeat to the Soviets.

[ Up-tempo jazz music playing ] ♪♪ -Thanks in part to the VOA broadcasts of Willis Conover, jazz culture was flourishing among young audiences behind the Iron Curtain in the late 1950s.

♪♪ 19-year-old Ryszard Horowitz was a jazz enthusiast and aspiring photographer in Krakow, Poland.

-Willis Conover of the Voice of America was our hero.

He had this, uh, extremely silky voice and spoke slowly, knowing that he was talking to foreigners.

-In early 1958, news emerged that the State Department had recruited the Californian pianist Dave Brubeck, an artist so popular that he'd been only the second jazz musician ever to grace the front cover of magazine, to travel to Poland and the Middle East with his mixed-race quartet to repair the damage inflicted by Little Rock on America's image abroad.

-In jazz, we have a certain framework, and we're completely free within this framework.

We have a chord structure, a rhythmic pattern that we have to follow, but the real force of your personality is how far you can go within this set framework.

-That also, I think, reflects the spirit of America, and that is why I have always felt that jazz is the truest expression of America, because it's true of American life.

♪♪ -Sensing an opportunity not to be missed, Brubeck brought his wife, Iola, and two young sons, Mike and Darius, with him on the initial Polish and Turkish legs of the tour.

♪♪ -There was no heating anywhere. It was freezing cold.

I had never seen people wearing overcoats and scarves and hats inside before, but that was post-war Europe.

Europe was the theater of war.

It was the site of a lot of destruction.

My father was a World War II veteran.

He was in the infantry.

And, for him, this was participating in rebuilding that world.

Not at all a question of Americanizing it, but just, you know, 'Let's all lift ourselves out of conflict and poverty.'

-Well, I mean, the excitement was -- You know, it was really, mind-boggling.

Like, we were counting days and hours when he would appear.

♪♪ -The concert took place in a relatively small student hall in one of the universities.

They improvised.

They built, like, a little stage.

People were sitting around him and just breathing and loving every note that came out.

♪♪ I was probably the only one with a camera.

♪♪ I took pictures of them separately, and my really beloved picture of Brubeck with Desmond.

♪♪ It was my way of, you know, really relating to what I happened to love.

♪♪ -During the tour, Brubeck had visited the birthplace of one of his favorite composers, Frédéric Chopin.

Now, as he prepared for his farewell concert in Warsaw, he composed a new work in homage to Poland's national hero, fittingly titled 'Dziekuye,' the Polish word for 'thank you.'

[ 'Dziekuye' plays ] ♪♪ -He performed it at the end of his last concert.

I still have this kind of thrill.

It's so emotional for me, and I've seen similar things happen with my father, but the way he connected with that audience was, you know, almost a mystical thing.

He played the piece, and instead of a response, there was total silence for a minute or so.

[ 'Dziekuye' continues ] ♪♪ [ 'Dziekuye' ends ] And this was beyond applause.

You know, and then thunderous applause.

[ Loud cheers and applause ] ♪♪ [ Up-tempo music plays, crowd cheering ] -♪ Ghana, we now have freedom -As the 1950s drew to a close, dozens of nations across Africa and Asia began celebrating their independence from colonial rule.

♪♪ -Decolonization meant that African-Americans, who were always treated as a minority, became connected to the rest of the world and became a world majority.

There's a beautiful photograph of a bookstore on 125th Street where you see all the faces of African countries, Asian countries, and others, and it basically says, you know, this is the majority of the people.

And when you begin to realize that, you know, you're actually part of a global majority and all the white people who told you that they run things are really part of a minority, that they are not the future, that they can join this future if they want to, that's a very powerful image.

-♪ Land of freedom ♪ Everybody, toils of the brave ♪ ♪ And the sweat of their labors ♪ -By 1960, memories of Little Rock had receded, and diplomats finally persuaded Louis Armstrong to sign up for a State Department tour, visiting 14 African countries in 45 grueling days.

-The '60-'61 tour of Africa is probably the most grueling tour of Armstrong's career.

In addition to a different city every night and a different concert every night, there's the dignitaries and the ambassadors and the receptions.

-Armstrong and his band are exhausted, and tragically, Velma Middleton, the brilliant composer/trombonist/singer, died on the tour.

-♪ I hate to see ♪ That evening sun go down ♪ Say, I hate to see ♪ That evening sun go down ♪ Say it makes me feel like ♪ I'm on my last go-round -She'd been warned not to go on the tour by her doctors because she had high blood pressure, but to her, it was just such an exciting, amazing opportunity to be able to tour the African continent.

-She'd been with Armstrong for 19 years.

Losing Velma was tough, but the show must go on, and so Armstrong keeps going.

♪♪ ♪♪ That tour becomes a very important moment in his life.

For the one and only time, he is the face of America, and he is met with just unbelievable adulation everywhere he goes, all up and down Africa.

-♪ Now, someday ♪ You'll be sorry ♪ The way you treated me was wrong ♪ [ Scatting ] ♪ I was the one who ♪ Who taught you all you know ♪ And your friends had you ♪ To make me sing another song -You've just come back from Africa.

Could you tell us a little bit about that trip?

-Well, all I can say, it was just a fabulous trip and was some of the best experiences I've ever witnessed.

I didn't realize that I was so well-liked all through Africa, and they proved it.

Every place we went there, the tribes and everybody celebrated.

We was at the airport -- big crowds of people.

Concerts packed and jammed, stadiums.

Oh, it was wonderful.

♪♪ -This is Senator John Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for the office of the Presidency.

The 1960s presents our country with great opportunities and great challenges.

-Kennedy, who assumed office in January 1961 with the goal of restoring American prestige, inherits a Cold War defined by contradictions -- a global military standoff and cultural bridge building.

-The two dynamics, the dynamic of Cold War stalemate and of Cold War exchange, are running simultaneously.

♪♪ It is remarkable that both hostility and exchange are coexisting.

-In 1962, with Berlin divided and the Cuban Missile Crisis brewing, plans for the first State Department jazz tour of the Soviet Union itself, first explored in 1957, when Armstrong withdrew over Little Rock, finally came to fruition, though not with Armstrong.

-Are you anticipating a sort of audience reaction when you hit the Soviet Union in a couple of months?

-Well, Willis, I haven't any idea.

I've never been there before.

♪♪ -In the spring of 1962, Benny Goodman, star of the 1930s' swing era, and his mixed-race band got the nod from Premier Khrushchev for an eight-week, six-city tour of the Soviet Union.

♪♪ -This is the first time in the history of Soviet/American cultural-exchange relations that the Russians have permitted a foreign jazz band to tour the Soviet Union.

And it was obviously an extremely difficult decision for the Russians to make, for the interest in jazz among the Russian people has been enormous.

[ Crowd cheering ] ♪♪ -[ Speaking native language ] -We definitely had the feeling that we were breaking down the wall a little bit when we went in.

And we were pleasantly surprised to see that the country looked just like our country and that the people just looked like the people that we knew in New York, and so it was like a little education on political propaganda.

-[ Speaking native language ] -At the concerts, there'd be a whole bunch of people standing outside waiting for us to arrive and applauding and all, but there would be three or four armed guards making sure that they didn't come over and talk to us.

[ Applause ] -[ Speaking native language ] ♪♪ -[ Speaking native language ] ♪♪ -[ Speaking native language ] ♪♪ [ Applause ] ♪♪ -The early years of the Kennedy administration saw little meaningful progress on civil rights.

♪♪ Civil rights protestors applied increasing pressure on the reluctant president through marches, sit-ins, and civil disobedience, culminating in the infamous Birmingham Campaign of April 1963, when Police Chief Bull Connor's forces turned fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful protesters.

-The violence that was unleashed on the protestors had an enormous impact on American audiences and audiences abroad.

Kennedy had been dragging his feet on civil rights.

He very much wanted to control it, so he didn't want the white racists to be violent against black Americans, but he didn't want the civil rights organizers to be visible or pushing anything.

But that moment, again a profound embarrassment before the world, led him to say, 'We really have to do something about that.'

-Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise.

The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -The American Negro, very trustingly, have come along a hundred years now after the Emancipation Proclamation and, of course, now their -- their demands are coming more strong and as it should be.

Their blood has been given in every war, and today, I mean, they've contributed culturally, and this thing that we are in, music, I think is, uh -- that is the music that is recognized as American music, which, of course, is mostly Negro.

♪♪ -Ellington's shift to being willing to go on a tour, represent the United States was very dependent on the fact that the government was finally moving overtly in civil rights.

♪♪ ♪♪ -In the summer of 1963, following Kennedy's promise to introduce a sweeping civil rights bill to Congress, Duke Ellington headed to the Middle East and India on his first jazz ambassador tour.

♪♪ -After 13 different shots and vaccinations, we leave New York on September 6, 1963, for one of the most unusual and adventurous trips we have ever undertaken.

Tom Simons, the official assigned to travel with us, is young, new in the department, and on his first foreign service trip.

♪♪ -I was 25, and I had just entered the foreign service.

A friend of my father's who was in the junior officer program called up and said, 'Would you like to escort the Duke Ellington Orchestra around the Near East and South Asia?'

And I said, 'I'd love to.'

♪♪ It was an opportunity to hear great jazz, but especially, it was an opportunity to be with African-Americans.

Because I'd grown up in segregated Washington.

I'd grown up with ethnic jokes.

I didn't know any African-Americans, and so it was kind of a test of where I was, whether there was prejudice lurking down there, and I'm sure there was and is, but, you know, whether that was a problem for me.

♪♪ -As the 12-country tour got underway, Simons briefed the Ellington orchestra on how to deal with questions about the Civil Rights Movement.

-The guidance would have been, 'Be honest.

You know, speak your mind.'

I mean that's -- that's what we're representing, too, so, you know, don't hide stuff, but be an ambassador.

-As citizens of a free country, there are no restrictions on our tongues.

We are to speak as free men.

We should always say what we think, in or out of favor with the United States.

[ Applause ] -Beautiful, beautiful.

As I always say, India is so vast and so lovely and so beautiful, and we do love you madly.

[ 'One More Time' plays ] ♪♪ -♪ Once more [ Singing indistinctly ] ♪ One more time ♪♪ [ Applause ] ♪♪ -Ellington's hopes of highlighting American progress on civil rights were dashed when news of the Birmingham church bombing, in which four young girls were killed, reached them.

-Contrary to the claims of the U.S. government or the State Department, things are not changing quickly.

The violence is not going away.

We're not almost there and having basically solved the really bad problems.

♪♪ -From India, the orchestra now turned back West.

They continued to Lebanon, Cyprus, and then Turkey, arriving in Ankara at 9:00 p.m. on November 21st.

Unusually, the band had the next day off, Friday, November 22, 1963.

-It's official -- As of just a few moments ago, the President of the United States is dead.

-We are about to enjoy a room-service dinner in the hotel when the telephone rings.

One of the State Department officers is downstairs and says he has to speak to me right away.

-I can remember standing by this polished black piano, and our ambassador came up to me and said, 'Tom, the President's been shot in Dallas.'

And we talked about who should tell Duke, and I told Duke.

-Nobody eats. Nobody talks.

Nobody does anything for 30 minutes.

-Then the question arose as to whether we should go on with the tour or curtail.

And Duke wanted to go on.

You know, you're in a national crisis, and you should go on as a matter of showing the flag, I think, is the way he felt about it.

But the department determined otherwise.

-It's so laughably and sadly ironical that they send out these magnificent ambassadors, and at the moment when you really do need them to perform their function at its most profound, as healers, as joy bringers, as community celebrants, as mournful reminders that life continues, you bring them home 'cause you didn't think of them that way.

You just thought they were entertainers.

It was time for them to go home.

You had the great celebrants of a magnificent sense of ritual, but you never realized it, and so the irony is, you missed your chance.

-Though the United States government didn't stop sending jazz groups on cultural and diplomatic missions, the heyday of the multination big-band odysseys ended, on Tom Simon's recommendation, with the curtailed Ellington tour in '63.

Since the jazz ambassadors first hit the road eight years earlier, America had sent many of its most renowned musicians to all four corners of the globe.

♪♪ -I never thought about myself as an ambassador.

I thought about myself as a drummer to Dizzy Gillespie's band, and that was it.

I never thought about myself as being an ambassador.

-I took away the understanding of the world as it really is, because Americans are known for believing in philosophies, but I tell all my kids, 'You've got to go to really know.

You don't know what you're talking about until you go.'

♪♪ -One of the most significant things about this whole story of the role of jazz and of race in American public diplomacy is that it underscores the importance of listening.

We know listening's important in jazz, but it's important in diplomacy, too.

The United States government had to listen to world opinion and it had to learn from the world about the nature of its own society, and it had to learn from world opinion the parts of American life that had to be changed.

♪♪ -What Adam Clayton Powell envisioned for the State Department tours is not what Dizzy Gillespie or Louis Armstrong thought they were doing.

They thought they were making a music that demonstrated not the superiority of American values, but the power of jazz as a unifier -- that, despite state institutions, that we can bring people together, at the ground level, to create a completely different kind of diplomacy.

That is jazz.

♪♪ [ Mid-tempo jazz music plays ] ♪♪ -'The Jazz Ambassadors' is available on DVD.

To order, visit Shop.PBS.org, or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

Also available for download on iTunes.

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