Foreign Policy Blogs

Cultural Diplomacy: Jazz Ambassadors

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Last night 60 Minutes (a TV news program in the U.S.) had an excellent two-part presentation on Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) Orchestra.  The followed the band’s trips to London and Havana, where they engaged in cultural diplomacy of the highest order. What made the JALC trip to Havana so interesting to watch was how they interacted with Cubans. They did not make pronouncements about the state of U.S.-Cuban relations and they clearly went far out of their way to venture beyond the confines of the concert hall to participate in jam sessions with Cuban musicians, visit music schools, hold master classes and a concert and reception at the U.S. interest section. In the spirit of jazz, and as cultural diplomacy should happen, Marsalis and his band traveled around with little or no security, meeting people in informal settings and sharing stages and performances with Cuban musicians as true partners (not merely as passive audience members or de facto students to be taught by the visiting Americans).  All the participants – Cuban and American – are both playing and listening to each other as equals.  Listening is as important in diplomacy as it is in music and in the 60 Minutes segments Marsalis and his band excel at both.  From Marsalis’ interview with Morley Safer:

“You(‘ve) talked about how music transcends politics. Do you see that in Cuba, that the music has some, I don’t know, liberating effect, or what?” Safer asked. “I see that about music and the arts everywhere. Because we create community. And we speak to the human soul,” Marsalis explained. It’s always dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions from events like this. Suffice it to say, that with the Jazz at Lincoln Center band in town, for five nights, Cuba and the United States were speaking the same language.

The full episode is hereand here.

Marsalis’ cultural diplomacy follows a long line of jazz ambassadors that included Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck and many others from the pantheon of jazz history.   More recent musical ambassadors from the U.S. have not been limited to jazz and include hip hop, which Marc Lynch notes is a natural extension of this effort:

I would argue that hip hop is the closest thing we have today to the jazz of the 1950s:  the product of black culture embraced by many whites, such as myself.  Like jazz, the best hip hop features rapid improvisation, irresistable beat, rapid responses and a careful ear, a rapier wit expressed through a musical idiom. These are two genuinely American art forms, rooted in the black American experience, which have become genuinely global.

Jazz at Lincoln Center administers today’s version of the Jazz Ambassadors, The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad. Supported by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, JALC programs overseas tours by American bands in genres including jazz, blues, bluegrass, Cajun, country, gospel, hip hop/urban, and zydeco.




James Ketterer

James Ketterer is Dean of International Studies at Bard College and Director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He previously served as Egypt Country Director for AMIDEAST, based in Cairo and before that as Vice Chancellor for Policy & Planning and Deputy Provost at the State University of New York (SUNY). In 2007-2008 he served on the staff of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education. He previously served as Director of the SUNY Center for International Development.

Ketterer has extensive experience in technical assistance for democratization projects, international education, legislative development, elections, and policy analysis – with a focus on Africa and the Middle East. He has won and overseen projects funded by USAID, the Department for International Development (UK), the World Bank and the US State Department. He served on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as a policy analyst at the New York State Senate, a project officer with the Center for Legislative Development at the University at Albany, and as an international election specialist for the United Nations, the African-American Institute, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has also held teaching positions in international politics at the New School for Social Research, Bard College, State University of New York at New Paltz, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, and the College of Saint Rose.

Ketterer has lectured and written extensively on various issues for publications including the Washington Post, Middle East Report, the Washington Times, the Albany Times Union, and the Journal of Legislative Studies. He was a Boren National Security Educational Program Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and in Morocco, an International Graduate Rotary Scholar at the Bourguiba School of Languages in Tunisia, and studied Arabic at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Morocco. He received his education at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Fordham University.

Areas of focus: Public Diplomacy; Middle East; Africa; US Foreign Policy

Contributor to: Global Engagement