WUNC on Jazz: “America’s Coolest Weapon During The Cold War”

Willis Conover, The Voice of America (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(Source: WUNC’s The State of Things via Kim Elliott)

During the Cold War, the U.S. Department of State sent jazz musicians around the world to sell the American way of life. This initiative took place in the 1950s, during segregation and the beginning of the civil rights movement. Jazz was gaining popularity on the international stage partly because of a Voice of America program hosted by Willis Conover, and partly because jazz musicians, like Louis Armstrong, played international tours.

The U.S. government took note of this popularity and decided to send musicians as representatives of the country, even as those representatives didn’t have the full benefits of the freedom they were touting. Many of these multi-racial, multi-gender groups were not allowed to perform within the boundaries of the United States due to Jim Crow.

Host Frank Stasio talks to Hugo Berkeley, director of the new documentary “The Jazz Ambassadors: The Untold Story of America’s Coolest Weapon in the Cold War.” Historian Adriane Lentz-Smith joins the conversation to put the story of the jazz ambassadors into context. Lentz-Smith is a professor of history at Duke University who served as an advisor to the documentary. She’s also the author of “Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I” (Harvard University Press/2011). “The Jazz Ambassadors” screens at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham on Sunday, April 8.[…]

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2 thoughts on “WUNC on Jazz: “America’s Coolest Weapon During The Cold War”

  1. Raoul

    Willis was one of my inspirations to get into broadcasting (and play jazz).

    Listened to him on VOA from my home growing up in Amsterdam.

    I hope Willis’ inspiration lives on a bit in my weekly shoertwave radio program Jazz from the Left on WRMI.


  2. Mike Hansgen

    Distinguished art forms are admired and appreciated worldwide. Willis Conover was immensely popular in the Soviet Union. It is said that American jazz great Charles Parker’s favorite composer was Igor Stravinsky. Moreover, the VOA Jazz Hour was a favorite pastime around the world.

    Personally, I am drawn to excellent music on shortwave daily. Voice of Greece is my favorite and I reccommend it if you haven’t tried it.

    Internationional broadcasting agencies desiring to reach target audiences with their messages would do well to remember that it is still “Time For Jazz”.


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