In 1956, the US State Department created the Jazz Ambassadors program, hiring leading American Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington to be "ambassadors" for the United States overseas, particularly to improve the public image of the US in the light of criticism from the Soviet Union around racial inequality and racial tension. Dave Brubeck also participated in the project, and (like many) was critical of the experience. He and his wife Iola Brubeck later wrote The Real Ambassadors, a musical, about it.
The first tour began in March 1956 and lasted for ten weeks. The 18-piece band was led by Gillespie and performed in Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Yugoslavia, and Greece. An American ambassador reported back that "Maybe we could have built a new tank for the cost of this tour, but you can't get as much goodwill out of a tank as you can out of Dizzy Gillespie's band." "A few years later, when Louis Armstrong arrived in the Congo as part of a tour through Africa, drummers and dancers paraded him through the streets on a throne. When he played in Katanga Province, a truce was called in a long-standing civil war, so combatants on both sides could go see him play."
Since then, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the US State Department has sponsored the Jazz Ambassadors in partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Alongside performances, they also conduct master classes and lecture-recitals for local musicians in addition to performing public concerts. The State Department also sponsors hip-hop artists, particularly in the Middle East, for similar purposes.
- Penny Von Eschen (2004). Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674022607.
- Kaplan, Fred (2009). 1959 : The Year Everything Changed. Wiley. p. 128.
- Aidi, Hisham (16 April 2014). "Hip-Hop Diplomacy". Foreignaffairs.com. Retrieved 18 January 2018.
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