Phil Woods Behind the Iron Curtain

Saxophonist Phil Woods talks about his 1956 trip with Dizzy Gillespie to the Middle East and his 1962 with Benny Goodman to the Soviet Union.

The Rabbit recently completed “Cold War Cool: Jazz On the Front Lines Of American Diplomacy,” a feature for the annual Playboy Jazz Festival Program (the festival is held over two days in June at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles with some roughly 17,000 in attendance each day).  One of the story’s conclusions is that most of the success of the U.S. government’s “Jazz Ambassadors” program, which began in 1956 with Dizzy Gillespie’s tour of the Middle East and ended in 1978 with Clark Terry’s visit to Pakistan, occurred on a person-to-person level. In that, it was a wonderful achievement. But the program actually worked against some of the State Department’s wished-for goals. Overseas audiences didn’t buy into the message of freedom and democracy’s superiority when it was carried by black Americans who were still experiencing Jim Crowe laws at home. And jazz musicians weren’t willing to spread a message that wasn’t genuine (Dizzy Gillespie: “I wasn’t going over to apologize for the racist policies of America”).  Peggy Von Eschen’s  thoroughly-researched book Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Harvard University Press) holds great history and insightful discussion on the issues surrounding these cultural goodwill efforts.

One of the things that didn’t make it into my Playboy feature was the fact that these personal contacts often occurred in spite of governments’ efforts (both the U.S. and host country’s) to keep the musicians apart. Von Eschen’s book recounts how saxophonist Phil Woods, after arrival in Moscow with Benny Goodman during Goodman’s groundbreaking 1962 tour to the Soviet Union, almost immediately slipped away with the president of Moscow’s largest jazz club to”make a jam session” much to the dismay of his American and Soviet handlers. In my interview with Woods (who was also on Gillespie’s 1956 tour), he said he barely remembers the event. “After that flight [into Moscow], I couldn’t remember anything,” he laughs. “That flight was the worst. There were oxygen masks hanging down in your face and the stewardesses all had beards.” While Woods does remember great jam sessions in Leningrad, Moscow was a different story. “Fraternization was very difficult. We were watched as was anybody who tried to come up to us. The police would form a corridor down the stage as soon as we quit playing and nobody could come by. By the time we made it outside the streets were deserted.”

Fans who recognized them on the streets were afraid to come up to them and would whisper the names of jazz musicians they’d heard on Willis Conover’s Voice of America broadcasts to get their attention. “We called them the talking bushes,” Woods says.  “Someone behind a tree would say ‘Dodo Marmarosa’ and we’d answer ‘Bud Powell.'”

Woods forthcoming autobiography Life In E Flat has a host of recollections from the Goodman day in a chapter called “The King and I.” It would be worth your time when some smart publisher has the sense to pick it up (publishers, contact Phil here). “We were part of a great thing back in the days when the government sent jazz musicians to put its best foot forward,” Woods told me. “I hope Obama will go back to sending artists overseas and have the army stay home.”–Cabbage Rabbit

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