By Candace Burnham
Pop quiz: name three jazz artists under the age of 50. Maybe you named popular favorites Wynton and Branford Marsalis, but can you name any of their albums? Does anyone else spring to mind? No? You’re not alone – if anemic record sales are any indication, a majority of Americans would draw a blank at that question. As a trumpet player who graduated from a jazz school, I’m acutely aware of the fact that jazz is simply not as ubiquitous today as it was sixty years ago. Yet, it’s still the crown jewel in US public diplomacy efforts. We export it as representative of American culture, but it’s barely relevant in our own country.
Cultural diplomacy, according to the late public arts funding advocate Dr. Milton Cummings Jr, is, “the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding.“ Governments utilize it in hopes of earning the support of foreign publics. Jazz, the status quo version embraced in government programs like Rhythm Road, doesn’t represent today’s America, but with the respect and press it garnered in the 1950s and 60s, the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is hesitant to give it up.
Public diplomacy practitioners still justify the need to export jazz by projecting political meaning onto the genre. They cite jazz’s ability to demonstrate American democratic ideals like individuality, dialogue and freedom. In this line of thinking, improvisation equals personal liberty, trading fours is like public debate, blue notes represent dissent, etc. Jazz is not a civics lesson. These platitudes are superficial at best and, at worse, absurd. The overall metaphor is a disservice to both jazz and democracy, and is weak justification for culturally irrelevant programs.
US cultural diplomacy hasn’t changed much since the Cold War. From 1956-1978, the Department of State unleashed jazz heavyweights like Satchmo, Brubeck, Gillespie and Goodman throughout the world as a counterweight to exquisite, high-culture Soviet Union cultural diplomacy, like the Bolshoi Ballet. It had the added bonus of serving as evidence of progress towards improving race relations. The players were famous, the music was cool and the form was distinctly American.
Today’s jazz doesn’t carry the social significance it had during the days of the Jazz Ambassadors, nor can we continue to claim a monopoly on it. It’s not “pop” music, it’s not associated with youth culture and it has lost its original cultural ties. American saxophone player (and Muslim) Ahmad Alaadeen said, “Jazz does not belong to one race or culture, but is a gift that America has given the world.” Since the Cold War, players and aficionados around the world have adopted jazz and it, in turn, has transcended American culture.
With jazz practitioners in almost every country, and technology making it possible to hear great jazz over an internet connection, the cultural diplomacy we send must treat foreign audiences as discerning consumers and offer them more than they can find at home. Sadly, it does not. We don’t send internationally known musicians (with the occasional exception of Wynton) who bring excitement and credibility to government programming, and we offer the safe and competent musical equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting: nice, but uninspiring. This is a laziness that’s present through much of today’s jazz, not just the acts the US sends. In Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, British experimental guitar player Derek Bailey notes, “…jazz…seems to have changed from an aggressive, independent, vital searching music to being a comfortable reminder of the good old days.” Just because the music is technically jazz doesn’t mean it’s valuable and doesn’t mean people want to listen to it.
If State wants to continue exporting jazz, it should focus on artists who are innovating within the genre. It is this innovation that adds the unique American element to the music. Innovators tend to be provocative and unpredictable, the antithesis of current jazz diplomacy programming. This is daunting to the risk-averse bureaucrat. To add an element of safety to the proposal, State can seek out and partner with organizations known for being “out,” like California Institute for the Arts, and they can identify those musicians who are pushing the envelope. This new platform will hopefully bring broader recognition for those who are making strides in jazz, like Butch Morris, who developed a compositional system that fundamentally changes the way musicians and non-musicians come together to perform. To be organic, though, and not come across to audiences as contrived, State has to squash its desire to control the artists and the message. Ultimately, cultural diplomacy can be aspirational again, and tell the world who we are and who we want to be. Jazz can still be a vehicle for this message, but not in its current form. It needs an overhaul to bring it into the new millennium – whether State is up for the challenge is still to be seen.
Candace Ren Burnham will graduate in May from the University of Southern California’s Master of Public Diplomacy program. Candace blogs at Ren’s Micro Diplomacy. Candace is also a student in Matt Armstrong’s Public Diplomacy course at USC.
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