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.

Louis Armstrong and his wife, Lucille, pose in front of Sphinx near Cairo in 1961, during a 45-country tour of Africa and the Middle East. Photo: Courtesy, Louis Armstrong House Museum.

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.

Cover of this year’s Tiburon International Film Festival program.

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.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →