restricted access Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era by Lisa E. Davenport (review)
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Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era. By Lisa E. Davenport. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. ISBN-13: 978-1604732689. Hardcover. Pp. 208. $50.00.

Lisa Davenport’s book is an important and accessible historical survey of U.S. government-sponsored international tours by professional jazz musicians during the Cold War. Davenport was the first scholar to make extensive use of the archival sources specific to musical diplomacy at the National Archives at College Park and the University of Arkansas Libraries. She also accomplished wide-ranging research in collections about jazz and in periodicals, including African American newspapers. Her book, based on her doctoral dissertation (history, Georgetown University, 2002), therefore serves as a highly useful introduction to these sources. Davenport’s skillful work in locating and bringing together these disparate materials does a great service for scholars of jazz and diplomatic historians.

In her account of jazz musicians’ tours, Davenport demonstrates acute sensitivity to the relationship between jazz’s role in the United States as the music of a minority struggling to attain equal rights and its use as a representation of American culture abroad. As Davenport rightly asks, “How could black art embody the soul of American culture and the essence of American civilization when black Americans were an ill-treated people?” (95). This irony remains central to our fascination with the role of African Americans as ambassadors, and throughout her account Davenport brings to bear specific evidence that makes the irony come alive for readers. For example, she describes cases in which U.S. Foreign Service officers and jazz musicians expressed very different views of the musical and intellectual capacities of African audiences, arguing about what performance styles could best reach those listeners (86–87). Diplomats sometimes underestimated their audiences, believing that they were not equipped to understand more difficult genres such as modern jazz; yet jazz musicians were especially effective in reaching out to people of color around the world. Schooled in the racial conflicts of the United States, they brought with them a respect for their audiences that made them especially useful ambassadors for their home country. Witnesses saw in them the financial successes of African Americans and the triumphs of African American culture. Throughout her account, Davenport also emphasizes that jazz served as “diplomacy at home,” a music that helped to change attitudes about segregation within the United States.

Davenport ambitiously attempts to situate detailed anecdotes about jazz musicians’ international activities within the broad sweep of early Cold War politics, including McCarthyism, race relations in America and abroad, the arms race, and anticolonial movements. At many points in the book she ventures a parallel history, interspersing key Cold War milestones (such as the U-2 crisis) with a history of jazz musicians’ tours. This contextual information and these musical events are often not linked in any concrete way, but this confluence of topics evokes the turbulence of the times and suggests why the U.S. government was willing to invest in cultural diplomacy alongside more conventional tools such as weapons and espionage. In some cases, though, Davenport’s interpretation requires too large a leap, as when she specifies that “in the wake of the Bay of Pigs calamity, the Soviets accepted Benny Goodman for an official jazz tour” [End Page 117] (118), implying but not remotely proving a meaningful relationship between the two incidents.

Although Davenport’s choice to limit this study to jazz has resulted in a book of appropriate scope and depth, this limitation sometimes weakens the validity of her analysis, as the government program that sponsored jazz also included many musicians who worked in other genres. She notes that U.S. cultural programs “initially did not include African Americans” (15); yet jazz was played on the radio programs of the Office of War Information during World War II, and African American classical musicians were sent on tours from the beginning of the State Department’s Cultural Presentations program in 1954. Other influential factors are sometimes omitted as well; the description of the overhaul of the program in 1962–63 highlights the controversial nature of jazz as a principal reason for the changes without mentioning...