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Solo: Jazzing Iraq

A jazz musician in Iraq

Hard to believe, but Iraq was once seen as “an island in a sea of instability.” In Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, Penny M. Von Eschen discusses how Iraq changed, and how American jazz musicians practically witnessed it. Dave Brubeck played Baghdad in 1958, just weeks before Abd al-Karim Qassim deposed King Faysal II. In 1963, mere months after Duke Ellington came through town, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, the mentor of Saddam Hussein, toppled Qassim’s government. The rest is history, one might say. But the tale of American and Iraqi cultural exchange continues, under vastly different circumstances.

This summer, in the northern city of Erbil, the Houston-based nonprofit American Voices launched the Unity Performing Arts Academy in Iraq. Its inaugural run began on July 14, oddly, the 49th anniversary of Qassim’s coup. With support from the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, the academy flew in American and European faculty to provide 10 days of free instruction in jazz and classical music, dance (including ballet and hip-hop) and theater. The program attracted over 300 students: Arabs from Baghdad as well as Kurds from Erbil, Suleimaniya and other districts in what is known as Iraqi Kurdistan.

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Originally Published

David R. Adler

David R. Adler writes about jazz and assorted topics. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, NPR Music, WBGO.org, The Philadelphia InquirerThe Village Voice, DownBeat, Time Out New York, and many other publications. From 2010-2017 he taught jazz history at the Aaron Copland School of Music (Queens College-CUNY). In summer 2017, after 30 years in New York (apart from two in Philadelphia), David relocated with his family to Athens, Georgia. There he continues to write about music and perform solo as a guitarist/vocalist.