THE JAZZ AMBASSADORS
Full Frame 2018
Newport Beach, Harlem
On America’s Cold War propaganda campaign which deployed African-American musicians around the world.
During the 1950s and ’60s, the Cold War was waged on many fronts. One, seemingly strictly cultural in its focus, actually spoke to a far greater sociopolitical intent. The jazz ambassadors program recruited celebrated African-American musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington – and their integrated bands – to travel to African and Asian nations experiencing liberation from colonial rule, trading on their popularity to sell democracy and combat the feared encroachment of communism. At the same time, however, they were meant to sell the idea of inclusion, putting the lie to Russian propaganda campaigns against the US that pointed out deep disparities along racial lines – injustices experienced by the very ambassadors taking part in the program, leading to conflicted experiences about their participation in some cases. While bearing the at-times clunky hallmarks of PBS’s house style, including a reliance on narration and largely superfluous re-enactments – Berkeley’s film offers a fascinating lens through which to consider Cold War politics and cicil rights history.