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A foreign country

It seems amazing now to read that 50 years ago, Duke Ellington's band toured the East in representation of the US government

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Thus begins L. P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between, better known by the film of the same name, directed by Joseph Losey. The phrase comes to mind as we look into the tours of jazz artists organized by the State Department in the 1960s.

It seems amazing now to read that 50 years ago, Duke Ellington's band toured the East in representation of the US government. For three months in 1963 they offered concerts and talks in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The list is dizzying: obviously no Western artist could now do the same tour.

This was before the proliferation of fanatical fundamentalism, capable of kidnapping or killing any infidel who came within reach. Confrontation was limited to ideologies - communism, capitalism - and did not touch religion or lifestyle. All those regimes, relatively recent, called themselves secular.

Which does not mean that the trip was quite risk-free. In Baghdad they witnessed the coup of Colonel Arif, who ousted the Baath party, one of the losers being Saddam Hussein. The presidential palace was bombed, with skirmishes in the streets. But the concert took place, duly broadcast on state television.

Ignoring the curfew, some instrumentalists went to a so-called nightclub

Ignoring the curfew, some instrumentalists went to a so-called nightclub. In their words, they found "two men and 20 women, all trembling, while outside some men with machine guns stood guard." These jazzmen seem to have been made of different stuff than musicians are today.

Astoundingly, in the whole tour there were no incidents worthy of mention. True, they had to fire Ray Nance, a trumpeter and violinist with a history of drugs, who was insubordinate and picked fights. A delicate situation developed in New Delhi when a "friend" of the duke landed there: a lady with an Argentinian passport in the name of Fernando de Castro Monte, known in Las Vegas as the Countess. It could not be publicized that Ellington was a womanizer; the official caretakers bent over backwards to keep them from being photographed together.

According to the State Department, the musicians were to project an image of "honest people of goodwill, informal, hardworking and chaste." This last point reveals the abysmal gulf between the Washington bureaucrats and the reality of a band on tour. The jazzmen, inured to the hard times of segregation and prohibition, showed amazing resourcefulness in obtaining feminine company, even in Islamic towns.

There was, of course, a master plan behind the tour. It was asserted that jazz represented the American way of life: if the Duke could be the toast of America, the racial conflicts there could not be so bad.

Ellington agreed, at least, with the anti-communist message, and made this clear enough to some annoying journalists in the inevitable press conferences. For him, liberties were indivisible: freedom of expression, sexual freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. He explicitly rejected the idea of the official, subsidized musician.

The tour was to proceed to other countries, but was suspended in Turkey, when Kennedy was shot in Dallas. This dramatic end did not prevent Ellington from recording in 1966 an LP titled The Far East Suite, with impressive pieces named after some of the places he had visited.

The State Department also added up the balance and found it positive. Someone suggested that Ellington was just another pawn on the Cold War chessboard. Obvious. But there was discernment in the export of something as American as jazz. Washington went further: in the 1970s it sponsored international tours by the (musical) revolutionary Ornette Coleman and the eternal rebel Charles Mingus. It has to be admitted that it was a more sophisticated tactic than the present one of sending marines and drones.

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