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Satchmo Blows Up the World by Penny Von Eschen

“No commodity is quite so strange/As this thing called cultural exchange,” so wrote Dave and Iola Brubeck in their musical with Louis Armstrong, The Real Ambassadors. Author Penny Von Eschen proves just how strange the U.S. State Department’s 1950s-1970s program that sent musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Satch across Africa, Southern and Southeast Asia, the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and South America actually was.

With an eye for incisive scholarship and an ear for lively, engaging prose, the author (a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Michigan) illustrates her storytelling with plenty of revealing artist anecdotes; she carefully chronicles the tensions–and, quite often, outright conflicts–that existed between the government’s aims and what the musicians wanted to achieve on these tours. She also delineates many of the ironies at the heart of these initiatives, including the fact that musicians subjected to Jim Crow at home were dispatched abroad to convey an impression of U.S. racial harmony.

While Von Eschen isn’t a jazz scholar per se, she offers a very valuable account of how the U.S. government tried to co-opt, contain and manage jazz for use in its own political narratives and objectives during the Cold War.

Originally Published