Legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck traveled behind the Iron Curtain 50 years ago on behalf of the State Department. On Tuesday, he visited the Elliott School of International Affairs for a discussion about risky diplomacy during the Cold War.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1958 cultural diplomacy tour took the four musicians to Poland, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan in an effort by the State Department to bring American culture and jazz music around the world during the Cold War.
“Anything that gets people together exchanging ideas and working together gives us a better chance for peace,” Brubeck told The Hatchet after the event.
The Elliott School seminar took place as part of a two-week festival held both in D.C. and Stockton, Calif. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice honored him Tuesday morning and presented the musician with the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy. The week’s events culminate with a performance by Brubeck and his band at the Kennedy Center on Sunday.
“This moment in international relations was ideal for Dave Brubeck’s trip during the Cold War as our relations with Eastern European countries began to thaw and our idea of the balance of power was changing” said GW professor Hugh T. Agnew, a speaker at the event.
GW Professor Marc Lynch, who spoke at the event, said the U.S. can utilize new genres of music like hip-hop for cultural diplomacy to combat anti-American sentiments in the Middle East. Hip-hop can act as a powerful force in uniting people around the world, he said.
“Jazz was a product of black and youth counter culture and at the time this was somewhat risky for the State Department to embrace,” Lynch said. “It was not a safe choice, but it was an inspired one.”
Lynch said due to the realities of today’s society, American hip-hop has already spread to many parts of the world, but he contends that cultural boundaries can only break through in the musical conversation created through artist collaboration.
The State Department still sends American musicians around the world to promote American ideals.
In February, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed in North Korea to create shared musical values between the U.S. and the communist country, despite recent failures in traditional diplomacy.
“We need to find these common languages and idioms and move away from government talking to government and move towards people relating to people,” Lynch said.
During the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1958 stop in India, Paul Desmond, the Quartet’s saxophone player was photographed attempting to charm a snake out of a basket using the melodious notes produced by his alto sax.
“That is more like diplomacy than I care to admit,” former ambassador and GW professor Karl F. Inderfurth said. “The hard part is not getting bit.”
“Cultural diplomacy was one of the best decisions the State Department ever made,” Inderfurth said. “What started with Dave Brubeck’s tour has morphed into a modern day tour of musicians and bands around the world.”