International Jazz Day: Living Legacy of the U.S. Jazz Ambassadors

Posted by Amanda Hicks
April 29, 2014
Jazz Artist Louis Armstrong Departs for South America in 1957

“You can't understand America without understanding jazz.” -- President Barack Obama

In the coldest days of the Cold War, the State Department launched an effort to tell the American story in a new, powerful way to inspire the hearts and minds of people in all corners of the world.  To voice the promise and possibility of that story, thoughtful leaders of the time needed something uniquely American, boundlessly creative, and deeply rooted in individual expression.  That voice was jazz. 

In 1956, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., an early promoter of jazz as a global cultural bridge, proposed to send a big band around the world to represent the United States through music.  On his cue, the Department of State launched the first tour by a “Jazz Ambassador” -- with none other than jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie.  On that groundbreaking tour, Gillespie led an orchestra to Southern Europe and the Middle East, drawing huge crowds, creating thousands of new jazz devotees, and altering forever the way in which nations envisaged and employed cultural diplomacy. 

Gillespie and his band established the benchmark for jazz tours that would span the subsequent decades, and featured Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, and many others.  Perhaps best known of all the early tours, Benny Goodman’s 1962 tour to the Soviet Union unfolded at the height of political tensions between the world’s then-superpowers.  Goodman’s adventurous five-week concert circuit created global headlines and embodied a powerful symbol of cultural partnership and goodwill that resonated in Soviet society for years to come.  Jazz remains an important element of the State Department’s cultural diplomacy programs, through exchanges like American Music Abroad, and now shares the stage with rock and roll, hip-hop, and other forms of musical expression popular with cultures around the world.   

Those early jazz tours serve as a reminder of how music binds people together, how it can foster intercultural dialogue, and its abiding appeal to youth.  In recognition of these truths and the continuing cultural relevance of jazz, in 2011 the United States worked with UN Goodwill Ambassador Herbie Hancock, the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to officially designate April 30 as International Jazz Day.  In 2012 and 2013, International Jazz Day captured the enthusiasm of thousands of jazz lovers around the world, and this year will be no different.  Hosted in 2014 by the city of Osaka, Japan, Jazz Day will feature concerts in cities and towns across the globe to celebrate the local impact of jazz and continue pushing the boundaries of modern jazz expression.  Jazz’s legacy of possibility and innovation, of creative expression and inspiration lives on -- and evolves -- through these events and the communities who give voice to them.  To find out more, go to

About the Author: Amanda Hicks serves as a Culture, Communication and Information Officer for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs.



Mark S.
April 30, 2014
Wilis Conover came to work at the Voice of America , and eventually became a legend among jazz lovers, primarily due to the hour-long program on the Voice of America called Voice of America Jazz Hour .His slow delivery and the use of scripts written in "special English" made his programmes more widely accessible and he is said to have become the first teacher of English to a whole generation of East European jazz lovers. Conover was not well known in the United States, even among jazz aficionados, as the Voice of America did not broadcast domestically except on shortwave , but his visits to Eastern Europe and Soviet Union brought huge crowds and star treatment for him. n 1956, Conover conducted a series of interviews with jazz luminaries like Duke Ellington , Billie Holiday , Stan Getz , Peggy Lee , Stan Kenton , Benny Goodman , and Art Tatum .
Phil B.
California, USA
May 6, 2014
I don't think President Obama understands jazz. Jazz is not the music of Wall Street.


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