“My only sin is in my skin. What did I do to be so black and blue?”

By Orla Heatley 

The dizzy­ing drum beats, bright, float­ing tones of a trum­pet or sax; the thump­ing under­cur­rent of rhyth­mic bass; the live­ly bounc­ing piano – all ener­gized by the impro­visato­ry buzz. This was the sound of one of the Unit­ed States’ most cru­cial Cold War weapons:

While for Ger­mans, Kul­tur refers to high cul­ture, often inac­ces­si­ble to ordi­nary peo­ple, Amer­i­cans approach cul­ture dif­fer­ent­ly. In the inter­est of pro­ject­ing ‘soft pow­er’ across the pond and even fur­ther beyond the Iron Cur­tain, the U.S. admin­is­tra­tion has employed var­i­ous gen­res of unique­ly Amer­i­can music and enter­tain­ment to rep­re­sent Amer­i­can lifestyles and woo East­ern Euro­pean audi­ences. Among the most auda­cious of these strate­gies was sta­tion­ing Elvis Pres­ley in West Ger­many in 1958 as well as send­ing the famous ‘Jazz Ambas­sadors,’ such as Louis Arm­strong, on tour through­out Europe, the Mid­dle East, and Africa.

A drum per­for­mance in Con­go Square

The roots of jazz, how­ev­er, are wild­ly dif­fer­ent from those of rock ‘n’ roll. What made jazz so unique­ly Amer­i­can was its ori­gin in a unique­ly Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence: that of being a per­son of col­or in a slave-own­ing and pro­found­ly racist nation. Most­ly orig­i­nat­ing from dis­tinct­ly African musi­cal tra­di­tions, jazz emerged in com­mu­ni­ties of enslaved peo­ples in New Orleans, where pub­lic dances took place in a large open space called Con­go Square. Musi­cians banged rudi­men­ta­ry drums and twanged on self-made string instru­ments while large crowds bopped in cir­cu­lar direc­tions, all stomp­ing feet, echo­ing call-and response chants, and sway­ing to the music’s flow. It was a way for African Amer­i­cans to musi­cal­ly express their experiences.

A num­ber of most­ly African Amer­i­can artists – Dizzy Gille­spie, Duke Elling­ton, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzger­ald and, of course, Louis Arm­strong – emerged as the genre went main­stream in the ear­ly 20thcen­tu­ry. As white musi­cians joined the ranks, the genre became emblem­at­ic of Amer­i­can diver­si­ty and inclu­sive­ness, a sig­nif­i­cant irony giv­en its origin.

Fast-for­ward to the Cold War, when jazz became an even more lit­er­al emblem of Amer­i­can demo­c­ra­t­ic cul­ture. Not only did it show off the nation’s vibrant music scene, but the care­free style of jazz also coun­tered the repres­sive regimes of East­ern Europe. Russ­ian gov­ern­ments had long been sus­pi­cious of this music, even attempt­ing to ban the sax­o­phone in the 1920s. At the same time, Arm­strong and oth­ers were ush­ered abroad to play for wild­ly enthu­si­as­tic inter­na­tion­al audi­ences. How­ev­er, this was not the U.S. government’s only moti­va­tion. Pic­ture the Amer­i­ca of the day – seg­re­ga­tion, vot­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion, ghet­toiza­tion. Attempt­ing to por­tray your­self as the best and fairest coun­try in the world while grap­pling (poor­ly, some might argue) with glar­ing racial inequal­i­ty isn’t the eas­i­est task. So, from 1955 onwards, Arm­strong and his All Stars were sent all over Europe as if to say: Hey, not only do we have a vibrant and lib­er­at­ed musi­cal cul­ture, but we include peo­ple of col­or in it, too!The audi­ences adored “Satch­mo,” much to the Soviet’s dismay.

“Ambas­sador Satch,” despite remain­ing most­ly silent on polit­i­cal affairs dur­ing his career, had a his­to­ry of crit­i­ciz­ing America’s treat­ment of peo­ple of col­or. In 1957, he can­celled a tour to the Sovi­et Union over the infa­mous events at Lit­tle Rock Cen­tral High School, dur­ing which Arkansas Gov­er­nor Orval Faubus sent out Nation­al Guard troops to block nine black stu­dents from attend­ing the school. Arm­strong was also fea­tured as a char­ac­ter in Dave and Iola Brubeck’s satir­i­cal musi­cal on this inci­dent, “The Real Ambas­sadors.” The lyrics of the open­ing piece are tak­en from its tit­u­lar song, and the mes­sage is clear: How can Amer­i­ca expect Arm­strong to rep­re­sent it when it refus­es to rep­re­sent him?

Though I rep­re­sent the government 

The gov­ern­ment don’t represent 

Some poli­cies I’m for!

  Oh, we learned to be con­cerned about the constitutionality,
In our nation, seg­re­ga­tion isn’t a legality.
Soon our only dif­fer­ences will be in personality,
That’s what I stand for!
Who’s the real ambassador,
Yes, the real ambassador?

Nonethe­less, Arm­strong con­tin­ued his ‘diplo­mat­ic’ work for much of his career. Arguably, one of the biggest cul­tur­al moments of the Cold War was his 1965 per­for­mance in East Berlin, although he remained mute on all things polit­i­cal, empha­siz­ing that he was pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned about his music.

Maybe that’s a nice way to frame this sto­ry – Jazz’s warm ener­gy, its inclu­sive atmos­phere and lib­er­at­ed spir­it could be said to rep­re­sent two his­toric tri­umphs: the eman­ci­pa­tion of slaves and racial progress in the U.S. and the vic­to­ry of demo­c­ra­t­ic, lib­er­al ideals over Sovi­et repres­sion and dog­ma­tism. Maybe this is sim­ply a sto­ry of the unique­ly redemp­tive pow­er of music.

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Orla Heat­ley is a law and polit­i­cal sci­ence stu­dent at Trin­i­ty Col­lege Dublin. She wrote this blog as a third-year Eras­mus stu­dent at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­sität in Berlin. As part of her stud­ies in polit­i­cal sci­ence, she takes a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in the role of soft pow­er and the world of cul­ture in glob­al relations.