Back in the United States my colleagues at the State Department have long recognized the power of jazz as a means of connecting people. More than 50 years ago, the Department launched a landmark jazz diplomacy effort featuring American musical legend Dizzy Gillespie. Ever since then, jazz has been a continuing feature of U.S. cultural engagement programs. (See some great old photos here.)
Well, I am very proud to announce the latest chapter in the State Department's "jazz diplomacy" program kicks off this Friday here in Paris, where we get an early start on UNESCO's inaugural International Jazz Day, which will be officially celebrated around the world on April 30, 2012.
This unique event, proposed by the United States and organized in cooperation with UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador (and jazz legend) Herbie Hancock, honors the American roots of jazz music and celebrates its global impact. And appropriately, this is truly an ensemble effort with critical support from not only the United States and Herbie Hancock but also the Thelonius Monk Jazz Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, and, of course, UNESCO along with more than 30 national co-sponsors, including Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Mexico, and Uganda.
So, we start here on Friday at UNESCO's headquarters with a series of special concerts, presentations, and master classes. Herbie Hancock, of course, will be on hand, so will musical greats like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Marcus Miller, and Hugh Masekela.
And then on the 30th -- Jazz Day itself -- there will be festivities around the world. In the United States we will have a special dawn concert in New Orleans followed by an evening bash at the United Nations in New York City. Similar concerts are planned everywhere from Azerbaijan (click here to learn about Azerbaijan's decades old love affair with jazz) to Argentina, Poland to Oman.
As U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO, I could not be more proud of our active support for International Jazz Day. I honestly cannot think of a better, of a more profound or a more important representation of American culture. I genuinely believe that jazz is America at our very best and, I think, at our most honest.
Jazz could only have emerged from the United States. It originated in the early years of the 20th Century, primarily in the southern United States -- and especially in New Orleans -- where you had African-American musicians who started to blend both African and European musical traditions. Of course, this was not an easy time. Slavery was barely a generation removed and segregation was still the law of the land in the South. That said, there was still a strong sense of community, and there was still call for entertainment.
And so, slowly but surely, out of this mix, you had rhythm and you had blues, you had ragtime music, and then ultimately...you had jazz. Now, almost from the start, jazz was defined by two core characteristics: improvisation and adaptability. And it is those two traits that make jazz such a perfect fit for American diplomacy; that combination, that willingness to take a core set of principals and then fearlessly apply them to new situations, to improvise and to adapt, to evolve; well, I happen to think that's the very heart and soul of American culture!
So, when we first discussed supporting an international jazz day I felt the music could be a powerful diplomatic tool -- not just for the United States but for anyone committed to communicating across cultures, anyone committed to the freedom of expression and who could appreciate the art of listening.
Jazz may have started in the United States but I think it clearly now belongs to -- and has been embraced by the world. As jazz great Wynton Marsalis once said, "As long as there is democracy, there will be people wanting to play jazz because nothing else will ever so perfectly capture the democratic process in sound. Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don't agree with what they're playing. It teaches you the very opposite of racism and anti-Semitism. It teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all."Update: Watch the live stream of the two-hour New York concert beginning at 23:30 UTC (7:30 PM EDT) here, and follow the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #jazzday. Learn more here.