Documentary before film festival tackles racial divide, jazz
It’s 1955, the year I graduated from high school, and the civil rights movement is clashing with the cold war.
“The Jazz Ambassadors,” an 89-minute documentary, shows a lot of what I was too self-involved in my teenage angst to absorb — that jazz was the one way the U.S. could not-so-subtly spread an inclusionary message abroad.
At the same time America was in racial turmoil.
The original brainstorm was African-African Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s.
That New York politician, who was married to a jazz pianist/singer, Hazel Scott, managed to convince President Eisenhower that America’s top jazz artists and their mixed-race bands could be good-will cultural ambassadors and counter a Soviet Union propaganda machine that was spewing information, misinformation and disinformation around the globe about U.S racism.
Ultimately, each of five big-name musicians did tour via State Department-sponsored events between 1956 and 1963.
Problematic for them, however, was that all the while they were in effect promoting the idea of an integrated, tolerant United States, our country was still in the throes of Jim Crow segregation. Employing their instruments as cool weapons in a war of diplomacy to “win the hearts and minds” of people of color in the emerging nations of Africa and Asia, therefore, was hardly 100% effective — or comfortable for them to do.
The disconnect was so severe that Louis Armstrong killed a prospective tour to the Soviet Union because of the eruption of a desegregation fight in Little Rock: “The way they’re treating my people down in the South,” he told reporters, “the government can go to hell.”
“Satchmo,” a worldwide magnet for adoration, relented several years later, though, and became a jazz ambassador via a 45-country tour that ended up being his most successful ever.
It included actually stopping a civil war in the Congo for 24 hours just by his presence.
The outstandingly strong 2018 doc, narrated by actor Louis Odom Jr. and directed by award-winning British filmmaker Hugo Berkeley, was screened free in the Belvedere Tiburon Library last night, the one before the opening of the Tiburon International Film Festival.
The film, despite being filled with often scratchy and sometimes out-of-focus historical newsreel footage and still shots, features authors and musicians as talking heads in addition to the marvelous riffs of trumpeters Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, clarinetist Benny Goodman, pianists Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington and their groups.
Also highlighted are Brubeck’s son, Darius; Gillespie arranger Quincy Jones (only 22 at the time of the tour) and drummer Charlie Persip; and a Voice of America announcer, Willis Conover, whose short-wave radiocasts were responsible for much of the musicians’ fame abroad.
Dizzy, who embarked on a seven-nation tour, was the first official State Department jazz diplomacy ambassador; last was Ellington, whose reluctance to go was overcome by the belief that John F. Kennedy would push a major civil rights bill but whose trip ironically was cut short by the government immediately after JFK’s assassination.
In my opinion, “The Jazz Ambassadors” should be a must-see for jazz buffs, history aficionados and anyone who might learn from the obvious parallel between the racism of the ‘50s — depicted most tellingly by a film clip with animated lynchings — and the burgeoning racism of today.
But I predict, unfortunately, that this truly important documentary will disappear into the ozone, unlikely to ever be seen by a large audience, because it’s a politically progressive look at music that wasn’t — and isn’t — in the mainstream.
This year’s Tiburon festival, meanwhile, is featuring 55 films from 29 counties and a tribute to American director William Wellman (whose son, William Wellman Jr., is scheduled to appear in person, to share his memories of his dad, at the screening of the elder’s 1937 version of “A Star is Born,” starring Janet Gaynor, Fredric March and Adolph Menjou).
The eight-day fest, whose stated mission is “understanding the world through film,” has also slated a tribute to actress/singer/comedian Kaye Ballard via a screening of a documentary — “Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On!” — and an appearance by the doc’s director, Dan Wingate.
Other screeners still to come at the Playhouse Theater include “Qualified,” an American offering about the first female Indy 500 racer; a showcase of Bay Area-produced shorts with seven directors in person; an Estonian entry, “The Little Comrade,” which focuses on an imprisoned six-year-old; and “Cronofobia,” a psychological Italian look at about suspended identity.