The Rhythm Road

Shades of Dizzy in Ankara, Brubeck In Warsaw and Goodman in Moscow. Jazz At Lincoln Center and the U.S. State Department team to again send American music overseas in a program reminiscent of the Jazz Ambassadors.

While researching the State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program that ended in 1978, we couldn’t help wonder if such a program exists today. It does. In 2005, sensing a need for the kind of diplomatic goodwill that only music can bring, the State Department teamed with Jazz At Lincoln Center and came up with The Rhythm Road, a program that sends a number of uniquely American musical styles to a variety of large and small but mostly off-the-beaten-path destinations.

Jazz At Lincoln Center executive director Adrian Ellis told us that the current program learned from the mistakes of those long-ago Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman trips. Today, musicians are most often sent to little-visited destinations rather than countries in the political spotlight. Embassies are encouraged to get the musicians out to the people rather than just playing for a select few.

“This is very much the grandchild of the [Jazz Ambassadors] program,” Ellis said. “Of course, the context has changed. We encourage interactivity, workshops and playing with local musicians. Clearly Gillespie and Goodman’s musicians played with locals but it wasn’t encouraged as it is now. Musicians are free to do their thing.”

Ellis, who grew up in England, is a product of America’s jazz outreach. He became interested in jazz listening to Willis Conover’s famous Voice of America jazz broadcasts. “We live in an age where indicators of a program’s performance are everything,” he explained. “But the impact of these kinds of programs aren’t easily assessed. Look at me. Hearing “Take the A Train” at age 10 totally transformed me. When you try to work out the effectiveness (of the program) on your target audience you have to consider what effect it’s having on the guy down the road as well.”

Ellis said that the program’s outreach goals are now more personal than political. “There’s a longstanding trope that jazz is a stand-in for democracy. And jazz exemplifies the parallel fight for civil rights. But there’s also a relationship between jazz and improvisational form, innovation and creation, both individually and collectively. It’s a naturally powerful metaphor. And we now know that you don’t have to push to hard on that for it to be a powerful diplomatic tool as long as it’s not tied to a specific policy agenda.”

Ryan Cohan, a Chicago-based pianist, has twice traveled under The Rhythm Road banner, once to Africa and Jordan, and earlier this year to Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia. His experiences–a tense arrival in the Congo, difficult political questions at a news conference in Jordan–are reminiscent of those long ago trips made by Gillespie, Brubeck and others. He recalls a Russian father-son musical team who spoke about what jazz means to them.

“The father told us how he and his friends had to sneak jazz recordings back and forth, how jazz was a very underground thing in Soviet times. When he was at the conservatory, they had to practice in secret. To be heard playing jazz meant immediate expulsion. I was so amazed at what jazz meant to him, the freedom it represented and how it connected our cultures.”

Cohan, whose talents as a musical communicator are obvious, kept returning to one theme during our interview: the power of music to bridge cultural gaps. “I don’t think people knew what to expect from Americans after all they’d heard in the media. But once we started playing, perceptions changed radically. The connections we felt with the (native) musicians we played with, it’s amazing the things that happen when you connect to people with the power of music. Every experience we’ve had on the tours has really been amazing.”

One experience—an experience that tied Cohan back to the Jazz Ambassadors program—stood out. “A woman in Jordan came up to us and told us how she’d seen Duke Ellington. She remembered “Take the A Train” even though she hadn’t seen any jazz since. Hearing her talk about Duke in Jordan, to be a part of that, to be connected to that lineage, was a powerful thing. I felt directly connected to her experience. Both of our perceptions about each other as people changed right there.”

For more information about The Rhythm Road program, go here. Musicians interested in auditioning for the program (The Rhythm Road is looking for 10 bands for its 2010 tours) go here. Auditions close August 10. Cabbage Rabbit

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