Jazz - The First American Musical Export
Back in the 1950s through the 70s, the US Government was fighting what they saw as a life or death battle for global supremacy with the Soviet Union, in the decades long conflict known as the Cold War. They used every approach in their political and military arsenal, from building alliances across the globe, to playing countries against each other, a nuclear arms race, and a couple of bloody failed proxy wars. They tried the soft power approach, exporting American culture and a belief system that embraced freedom and individualism. The cultural export that they decided embodied this feeling to its fullest extent was Jazz. Jazz was something completely unique to America, embodying the chaotic, improvisational, laissez-faire spirit they saw as so antithetical to the rigid, planned, communist systems under the sway of the U.S.S.R. At least that was the hope. Jazz Diplomacy became the USG's secret weapon, ironic considering it originated with a minority that had been historically oppressed. We sent such renowned artists as Dizzie Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong and Sarah Vaughn to Eastern Europe and other parts of the globe to be our cultural Ambassadors. And the world loved it. I'm not saying it was responsible for ending the Cold War, but it certainly didn't hurt.
The Jazz Diplomacy effort was so successful that you can now find jazz in nearly every country in the world, with an infinite number of styles, fusions, and adaptations. I seek it out when I travel because I love the sound of it, and it feels like a little piece of home. My favorite jazz club abroad is probably Caveau de la Huchette in Paris, which may feel like an obvious choice. If you haven't been to this underground bastion of American musical tradition in the middle of the Latin Quarter, I advise you to start planning a trip as soon as France allows Americans to enter their borders. I know I will be. Occupying the "caveau" (cellar) of a 16th Century building, the Caveau de la Huchette has been around since 1949. Jazz had been embraced in France well before before WWII, as exemplified by their love of Josephine Baker who became famous for her voice and her dancing style. The French were far more accepting of black artists than the US, and other African American talents would tour in France and other locales in Europe to packed theaters. Another Paris club in the Marais, 38 RIV, is a tiny place with also an underground performance area. Cozy and intimate, I watched a Bossa Nova group perform there in 2016, and I sighed at this beautiful confluence of affiliations I love: France, Brazil, and Jazz (BN is related). I have the groups CD and I listen to it when I want to drift back to that night.
The jazz club that I remember as the most raucous was in the Czech Republic. U Malena Glena has been around since the 50s, and again, is in a small space down some dark stairs and into something that clearly used to be a wine cellar or basement. I'm convinced that all of the best jazz clubs are underground. I was in Eastern Europe for the first time, this was maybe back in 2009. I linked up with some other travelers who I met on the train and we packed into this space and by the end of the night everyone was up and boogying to the music. The sounds of the horns and drums just reverberated off the old mildewy stone walls.
Then of course there is Brazil, my other love. While in Rio I mostly heard samba de pagode, forro, and baile funk in the streets. But there were still some clubs that played Bossa Nova, the rolling, intimate sounding music that combined traditional Brazilian Samba rhythms with American Jazz sounds and instruments. Bossa Nova originated in Rio, in fact, also in the 1950s. Listening to classic artists like Sergio Mendes, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Joao Gilberto, I'm transported to some of the quieter spots I can recall in Rio (though not much of it was quiet!).
Domestically, New Orleans is where the heart of Jazz is. It's where ragtime, Jazz's predecessor, got its start. When I go there, which I hope to do soon, the best thing to do is literally drift from place to place on Frenchmen Street (Bourbon street has become way more of a party street than a music street) with a bourbon in hand and just listen to some of the best jazz music you'll hear anywhere, by relatively unknown musicians. As soon as the COVID-19 cases start taking a significant downturn in the south, that is the first place I'm headed.
Finally, DC has its own jazz tradition that had its height in the 1920s - 1940s. U Street was lined with clubs and theaters that showcased the top talent of the day. Duke Ellington is from here, for crying out loud. "Black Broadway" competed with New York and New Orleans as a Jazz Capital. These days, jazz clubs are sadly few and far between. You have Blues Alley in Georgetown, probably the most well know contemporary club. There is also jazz night at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in SW on Fridays and Alice's Jazz and Cultural Society in Brookland. On legendary U Street there is still Howard Theater, Twins, Jojos, and the occasional Jazz nights at different venues along what had been DC's most dense concentration of jazz culture. I centered an entire tour around that history, "Harlem Renaissance in DC." With such a significant contribution to jazz culture back during its height, how could I not talk about DC's role?? Right now all of these places are closed in lieu of COVID. I look forward to them all opening their doors again, if they survive this damned pandemic.
Jazz continues to be a beloved American export, and jazz clubs around the world still thrive thankfully. I look forward to finding another cave somewhere, in some country I don't know, to find a little taste of home while feeling the excitement of a new place.
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A piece of Jazz inspired art I purchased in a Miami sidewalk art show.