From the 1950s to the 1970s—as American jazz took the world by storm, thanks to popular jazz broadcasts like Willis Conover’s Voice of America radio show, Music USA—the U.S. Department of State sent dozens of America’s greatest jazz musicians to tour the globe. Known as “the Jazz Ambassadors,” these American jazz greats were embraced by enthusiastic audiences from Africa to the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Latin America.
America’s jazz ambassadors were thrilled by the opportunity to “play for the people.” They were so committed to reaching out to foreign audiences that several artists refused to play concerts until eager fans unable to afford tickets were admitted for free. Many of the musicians were equally eager to learn about the music and culture of their international hosts and held impromptu jam sessions with local musicians.
Through the power of jazz, these artists were able to transcend national boundaries, build bridges, and tell a larger story about freedom in America. Jazz Ambassador Louis Armstrong explained it best as he sang on the album, The Real Ambassadors, produced in collaboration with fellow Jazz Ambassador Dave Brubeck and his wife, Iola: The State Department has discovered jazz; It reaches folks like nothing ever has. Like when they feel that jazzy rhythm, They know we’re really with ’em. That’s what we call cultural exchange.