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Exhibit Touts Jazz Ambassadors' Global Impact

From March 20 through Aug. 14 at the Fowler Museum, "Jam Session: America's Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World” will illustrate how some of our most famous musicians taught the world about the United States while learning about their host nations as well.

By Kelsey Sharpe for UCLA Today

Louis Armstrong plays in Cairo, Egypt, for a group of hospitalized children (1961). Source: Louis Armstrong House Museum.

Louis Armstrong plays in Cairo, Egypt, for a group of hospitalized children (1961). Source: Louis Armstrong House Museum.

On any given day at the Fowler Museum, visitors might see art from South America, Asia or Africa, but soon they’ll get to see a uniquely American exhibit.

From March 20 through August 14 "Jam Session: America's Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World” will illustrate how some of our most famous musicians taught the world about our country while learning about their host nations as well.

Starting in the mid-1950s and continuing into the 1970s, America sent a number of our nation’s most treasured jazz icons — Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan and more — to represent the nation and cultivate cross-cultural exchanges. These jazz ambassadors often flouted State Department protocol in order to meet and learn about the people in the countries where they were sent.

“These guys went out there, and they did something that the state department never imagined; they went out and deeply interacted with the audiences,” said Penny Von Eschen, professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan and guest curator of the new exhibition.

“They were just dying to meet people and learn about the instruments and the music that people played in other countries,” she said.

Dizzy Gillespie (left) and local musician Nikica Kalogjera (right) surrounded by fans while stradling a motorcycle in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (1956). Source: the Marshall Stearns Collection, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University.

Dizzy Gillespie (left) and local musician Nikica Kalogjera (right) surrounded by fans while stradling a motorcycle in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (1956). Source: the Marshall Stearns Collection, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University.

The Fowler exhibit will display an impressive collection of photographs of these ambassadors that Von Eschen and Encompassing the nearly two decades during which the jazz ambassadors were active, the photographs highlight the meetings, discussions, concerts and frequent spontaneous jam sessions that occurred when local musicians met with jazz musicians and music enthusiasts.

In Burma, Count Basie practiced a local song for a planned performance; in Egypt, Louis Armstrong improvised on his trumpet for a group of hospitalized children; in Yugoslavia, Dizzy Gillespie mounted a motorcycle with local musician and composer Nikica Kalogjera while fans looked on.

During the Cold War period many foreign countries witnessed not only the confrontation between America and the Communist bloc, but also the inner turmoil around issues like segregation. The jazz ambassadors didn’t just represent American interests abroad; they also demonstrated the country’s great intellectual and cultural thirsts, as well as its communal, collaborative spirit.

This was reflected, said Von Eschen, during the first goodwill trip taken by Dizzy Gillespie, the original jazz ambassador: “The government wanted to show U.S. democracy in action, but they got a lot more democracy and a lot more action with Gillespie that they expected.

“He went to Pakistan and saw all these poor kids outside and said, ‘I’m not going to play unless you let these kids in.’ He repeatedly said ‘I came here to play for all the people.’”

Count Basie rehearses Burmese song

Count Basie rehearses Burmese song "Emerald Dusk" in Rangoon, Burma (1971). Source: Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

On March 19, the Fowler Museum will host a special opening night concert featuring UCLA’s very own cultural ambassador, Ethnomusicology Professor Kenny Burrell. Burrell will jam with colleagues from the Department of Ethnomusicology and the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, cosponsors of the exhibit. Guests are invited to listen to the music while previewing the exhibit and attending a dessert reception. General admission is $20.

The next day, March 20, the official opening of the exhibit, all visitors will receive free admission to view the photographs, hear an in-gallery jazz performance and attend a Fowler OutSpoken discussion with Burrell, jazz historian John Hasse and legendary musician Quincy Jones. 

“Jazz music has served as a welcome source to bring harmony and goodwill to people all over the world,” Burrell said. He explained that the Fowler exhibit not only demonstrates the “power and effectiveness of this great American music,” but also gives credit to the many musicians who were “true international ambassadors.”