US jazz ambassadors go where diplomats fear to tread
The government-run Rhythm Road program sends American jazz musicians abroad, often to countries where the US is far from loved, in an effort to win over hearts and minds through music.New York -- A midnight jazz concert in a Manhattan bar seems an unlikely place to plot US foreign policy -- until you take a closer look at the musicians.
Meet the jazz ambassadors, a motley army of trumpeters, pianists, drummers, double-bassists and other jazzmen recruited by Washington to win hearts in some of the most US-sceptic corners of the world.
This week, they drank and jammed against the twinkling backdrop of the New York night to celebrate ending the latest Rhythm Road tour, a program run by Jazz at Lincoln Centre and the State Department.
Their itineraries, taking in the likes of Belarus, Myanmar and the Middle East, would have tested even Washington's seasoned regular diplomats.
Saxophonist Chris Byars' quartet was dispatched to play in US bugbear Syria, as well as in Bahrain and other deeply conservative Muslim states.
He describes arriving in Oman and thinking that "wow, these people have never heard jazz before."
Rhythm Road started in 2005, but descends from the Cold War-era Jazz Ambassadors program which sent legends including Dizzie Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington out to combat Soviet cultural influence.
The program is thriving -- applications are up a third to audition for the 2010 season -- and would seem to fit well with President Barack Obama's promise of greater dialogue.
Certainly the US image, battered by torture scandals and the widely condemned wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, could do with a public relations lift.
Participants say the program does just that, stressing that jazz is not only the most American of art forms, but also peculiarly suited to diplomacy.
After all, bands typically involve three or four people playing different instruments without sheet music and still, through negotiation and cooperation, combining to produce glorious sound.
"It's about engagement and listening. That's fundamental to a bandstand," said Susan John, Jazz at Lincoln Centre’s director of touring.
Jazz principles of "call and response and improvisation," she added, are "a perfect illustration of democracy and dialogue."
Ryan Cohan, whose quartet toured Belarus, Russia and Ukraine this year, said audiences potentially hostile to the United States quickly warm to visiting bands.
"People see this desire of Americans to connect, Americans that they thought were out to rule the world. They see humility," Cohan, 38, said. "It gives an incredibly different perspective about Americans."
Not all Rhythm Road musicians play jazz.
Liz Chibucos, 23, visited Myanmar with Student Loan, a bluegrass band, but she said the strategy of using archetypal US sounds to connect with people -- and inviting them to join improv sessions -- was the same.
"We said, 'we're bringing our culture to you and we want to learn from you,'" she recalled, adding: "This is far more effective than any war."
Participants acknowledge some might perceive them as propaganda tools, but say the danger is easily avoided when instruments are allowed to do the talking.
"A lot of that is better accomplished without words. When you start to spell it out for people they start to think you're out to sell and they get cynical," Byars, 38, said. "The sooner I start to play the happier people are."
Even Oman eventually caved in to US diplomacy's sonic weapon, Byars says.
During a rather strained concert for students the electricity unexpectedly cut. Then suddenly, under cover of darkness, the straight-laced audience loosened up, danced and began to wave cell phones.
"It became like a jazz club," Byars said. "They started to have fun. They also had cell phones and I saw all these glowing lights, a combination of fireflies and UFOs and I really knew they were there. It was incredible."