All That Jazz

Posted by Esther Brimmer
April 25, 2012
Embassy Jazz Day 2012

On an unseasonably cold and rainy Sunday, the action inside the Smithsonian's new Warner Bros Theatre was anything but dreary. The afternoon's celebration of jazz featured a roundtable discussion with jazz experts followed by musical performances before a crowd of diplomats and other invited guests.

I was thrilled to co-host our inaugural Embassy Jazz Day, Bridging Cultures Crossing Divides, with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History this past weekend. This occasion provided the opportunity to mark the role jazz plays in creating linkages between peoples, communities, and cultures while also enabling the next generation of jazz innovators to perform including Howard University's Afro Blue and Lena Seikaly. This event also represented a first: a partnership between the Bureau of International Organizations Affairs and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

Jazz historian, NPR producer, and event moderator, Walter Watson, asked panelists to reflect upon the music genre's influence upon the world. One of the Smithsonian's jazz experts John Hasse relayed several first hand stories of the dramatic impact that jazz has played throughout the world. In South Africa, where Hasse spoke to a group of young musicians and then played Louis Armstrong for them, he was told the music changed their lives. And in Poland where a young boy, now a jazz musician, clung to jazz as an outlet for expression under the repression of the Iron Curtain. He defied silence by listening to black market recordings during the Cold War. And finally, Hasse spoke of the remarkable story of the son of a Turkish diplomat in the 1930s who used jazz to integrate a racially divided city by holding private jam sessions at the Turkish Embassy and inviting black and white musicians to jam together.

The genesis of Embassy Jazz Day began more 50 years ago after the Department of State launched jazz diplomacy, featuring international tours by American musical legends such as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie introducing the world to jazz. It fueled an explosion in interest in American music and culture.

Now jazz has reached new diplomatic heights, punctuated by UNESCO's appointment of music legend Herbie Hancock as a Goodwill Ambassador. Hancock helped to garner support for UNESCO's International Jazz Day, which will be marked with celebrations and musical events in many corners of the globe on April 30.

For more information about the Smithsonian's Jazz Appreciation Month, please visit www.smithsonianjazz.org. For more information about International Jazz Day, including upcoming celebrations in Paris, New York, and New Orleans, please visit UNESCO's Jazz Day webpage. And, you can view an archived version of Sunday's event here.

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