U.S. public diplomacy and jazz have a long history, dating as far back as Dizzy Gillespie's 1956 participation in the State Department's Jazz Ambassadors program. On Thursday and Friday, May 13 and 14, the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai and the USA Pavilion added to that history by hosting two nights of “Jazz: An American Tradition” at the 2010 World Expo (World's Fair) in Shanghai. Jazz greats Herbie Hancock and DeeDee Bridgewater came to town with student musicians from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and they put on two fantastic shows! I was fortunate to be part of the team here in Shanghai supporting the event and had an up-close and backstage view of the whole thing. The performers' enthusiasm was infectious and the audience reaction was fantastic.
The USA Pavilion alone has already welcomed more than 500,000 visitors during the first two weeks of the Expo, and Expo organizers in Shanghai predict as many as 70 million visitors will attend the 2010 World Expo over the six month long event. This makes the Expo an ideal opportunity to share the culture of the United States with people from China and around the world. Jazz, that quintessentially American music, can speak to everyone. You don't need to be an aficionado to enjoy free-wheeling conversations that great jazz musicians have with their instruments. You don't need to know who the performers are or the history of the music to know it makes you feel good to hear it. Great music is an amazing bridge between cultures and the shows this past week were no exception.
Herbie Hancock, DeeDee Bridgewater, and the musicians of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz were all enthusiastic about the opportunity to perform for a foreign audience and to share their art with jazz lovers as well as folks just looking for a show. Some of the performers even took advantage of their very limited down time after the shows to get out and see a bit of Shanghai's thriving jazz scene and connect with artists living and working in the city.
For me, a first tour officer who spends most of my day adjudicating non-immigrant visa applications, the opportunity to see first-hand U.S. cultural diplomacy at work was amazing. The performers were great and the audiences both nights were receptive, even calling for an encore the second night (something rarely done in China). Hearing the audience laugh along with DeeDee and Herbie as they bantered about doing a tune they hadn't done in years, it was easy to see that the language barrier is a small thing when two great performers are on stage.
U.S. cultural diplomacy is an important component of our public diplomacy playbook and events like “Jazz: An American Tradition” help us communicate the full picture of what America is and who Americans are to the rest of the world. The Shanghai World Expo promises many opportunities for cultural exchange and being a part of the United States' contribution this past week was certainly exciting. I look forward to all the events this summer will bring!
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