This Year’s Jazz Messengers on the Rhythm Road

Jazz at Lincoln Center and the U.S. State Dept. announce their 10-band diplomatic corps

Dana Leong in Vietnam
Helen Sung of Helen Sung & NuGenerations instructs musicians in Harare
Ameen Saleem of Brian Horton Quartet in Turkey
Tim Armacost of Paul Beaudry & Pathways in Honduras
The Chris Byars Quartet performs in Saudi Arabia in February 2008
Devin Phillips with children in the Democratic Republic
Brian Glassman of Johnny Rodgers Band in Port Moresby

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Jazz wins hearts and minds. It’s a rhythmic diplomat, reflective and conversant by its nature. That’s the idea behind the Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad, a project produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center and sponsored by grants from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, now embarking on its seventh series of journeys.

Rhythm Road is inspired by the Jazz Ambassador program, founded in 1955 by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of Harlem, which sent Dizzy Gillespie and his 18-piece band to southern Europe, the Middle East and south Asia, and devised similar missions for Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck. Today’s jazz ambassadors sent on 4-to-6-week tours of regions around the globe that wouldn’t otherwise get much exposure to this element of American culture, perform, teach workshops, give demonstrations and jam with the locals. This year’s crop-10 bands chosen from a pool of 110 applicants-ranges from traditional quartets to performers of jazz-influenced Americana.

Four New York-based jazz bands make the 2011 lineup: the Ari Roland Quartet and the Kate McGarry Quartet, both veterans of the Road; the Jed Levy Quartet, and Paul Beaudry & Pathways. There are two bluegrass bands in the mix, Mountain Quickstep of upstate New York and Earth String Band of Massachusetts, and two southern gospel ensembles, the Grammy nominated Melvin Williams Group of Louisiana; and Oscar Williams, Jr. and the Band of Life, who traveled the Rhythm Road to Lebanon in 2010. One Urban/Hip-Hop group makes this year’s cut: the New Jersey-based, Legacy.

Bands are selected not only for their musical excellence but equally for demonstrated interest in education and outreach. Says Margaret Ames, director of the State Department’s Cultural Programs Division, “We put a lot of emphasis on trying to find people who are genuinely interested in exploring cultures outside of the United States, sharing what they know with people who might not have had any experience with jazz or roots music and opening themselves up to this kind of person to person exchange.”

As far as choosing the five or six countries to which each band will travel, Ames says, “It’s a very complicated process.” It’s not only about reaching “audiences in places that may not necessarily have access to Americans or American musicians,” she says but also ensuring “that the Rhythm Road supports U.S. foreign policy interests. We consult with our colleagues in other parts of the State Department to make sure we’re going to countries with whom we have important relationships, and where music and cultural diplomacy can have an impact.”

Past tours have visited Brazil, Burma, Cambodia, China, Columbia, Cyprus, Ecuador, Fiji, Honduras, Kuwait, Morocco, Nicaragua, Philippines, and Republic of the Congo, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Turkey, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.

Jazz at Lincoln Center works closely with embassy staff in these countries to plan the daily logistics of each tour and help coordinate outreach activities, which have included master classes for local musicians, workshops in schools, and visits to orphanages and refugee camps. They also conduct pre-tour trainings.

“That’s something that Jazz at Lincoln Center invests a lot of time in,” says tour director, Susan John. The first step is to “convene all of our ten bands to for an intro to the program and a crash course in touring. We spend a big chunk of time on educational work.”

John was greatly inspired, she says by the 2011 orientation, “It was a really great way to watch a musician community to form,” she says. “You know, we have fiddle players, a hiphop MC with a jazz bassists and a trumpeter in a huddle which is getting really excited about rhythm, and our gospel singer comes and joins them…it was honestly a beautiful coalescing of all of these forces, the magic of musicians in a room.”

Having herself traveled the Rhythm Road to Burma, China and Zimbabwe, as an evaluator, John has witnessed this magic in service of the program’s mission,

“Dialogue is where you learn the most, and jazz as an idiom has that embedded so naturally within it,” she says, “we watch our jazz quartets especially, travel the world, and communicate with other musicians, and they just seem to speak together very quickly. The language barrier seems to recede when they’re improvising on a local folk tune. Jazz musicians seem especially fluent in this listening and speaking no matter what the idiom is.

This connection between the folk music and jazz is key. At least according to the Ari Roland Quartet, who first hooked up with the Rhythm Road in 2007 and have seized every chance to serve as jazz ambassadors since.

“There’s a certain joy and a rush,” says Quartet saxophonist, Chris Byars, “about arriving in a country with twenty-four hours until your first concert, and hooking up with the people that live there and saying ‘what tune does everyone know?’ ‘What tune does everyone including your grandmother and your little niece sing to themselves? And if you sing it to me now I’m going to record it into a little microphone and I’m going go upstairs and make a jazz version of it and I’m going to perform it tonight.’ We’ve done that in dozens of countries and let me tell you it works.”

As far as ‘what works,’ Byars should know. He is speaking on the phone from the Turkish Republic of Cypress, a region not recognized by the country’s ruling party, where his State Department sponsored jazz workshops are bringing people from both sides of a decades long ethnic feud together to jam.

“It’s just as cool for us as it is for them,” he adds, echoing another sentiment of John’s. “We had a concert just recently at Lincoln Center and we played only songs that we picked up on the Rhythm Road and it knocked their socks off in New York. So it really works anywhere. In some deep way jazz is folk music, so folk music works well as a basis for jazz.”

Bassist and bandleader Ari Roland agrees with his band mate, “When they hear these songs, it brings them a little closer to a new sound, ” he explains, “and the other thing it does is it pays tribute to the cultural heritage of the country we’re in. It shows people, ‘listen, we really are interested in your cultural tradition, we’ll bring these songs back to New York, we’ll play them for American audiences.’ It’s ‘thank you for this opportunity to immerse ourselves in what makes your cultural tradition so special.'”

Roland’s discovery of common threads running through the world folk he has picked up and the jazz he has used to explore it, are for him, at the heart of what makes the Rhythm Road important,

“The main thing is there’s always a story that you can hear-how these musicians learned from their mentors and then developed their own contributions to this music, and there can be one note, and it goes right to your soul and right to your heart. The similarities between this jazz music and this folk music from around the world are so important. It just reinforces this feeling that every time you play, you have to play from your heart, thinking of the other musicians, thinking of the stories behind it, thinking of the community.”

This year’s tour will be from May 2011 through February 2012. It will be documented at the Jazz at Lincoln Center website.

Here’s a video of Ari Roland, Keith Balla, Chris Byars and Zaid Nasser playing “Bahraini Pearl Diving Music.”