April 30th marks International Jazz Day, the worldwide celebration of America’s original art form. Although the style originated in New Orleans, Louisiana, jazz’s combination of foreign styles and influences has made its music an international genre. Since its creation in the late 1800’s, jazz has evolved into a critically acclaimed and appreciated form of music across the world. Throughout jazz’s rich history, musicians and international diplomats alike have employed the genre for its use as a vehicle of international cultural diplomacy.
This past October, jazz lost one of its greatest international ambassadors when His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand passed away after his 70-year reign. In the world of jazz, King Bhumibol will be remembered as a great enthusiast of the music and an extremely accomplished jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, trumpeter, pianist, and composer.
As a child with an affinity for music, King Bhumibol formed a trio with his older brother, King Rama VIII and their music teacher, while they were studying in Lausanne, Switzerland. King Bhumibol’s love for music, and specifically jazz, continued throughout his reign as the Thai King. While he was still serving, King Bhumibol continued to actively participate in jazz. He not only organized groups to play with him weekly at the Royal Palace, but also wrote more than 40 original compositions that are widely revered throughout Thailand.
Bhumibol was instrumental in participating in some of the most successful international jazz diplomacy tours, where he performed alongside prominent American jazz musicians traveling throughout the world during the 1950’s-1970’s. These tours, highlighted in Meridian’s exhibition Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World, were organized by the United States Department of State during the height of the Cold War with the goals of promoting diplomacy, American culture, and international exchange overseas.
For years, the United States used jazz music as one of their main tools of cultural diplomacy. Beginning in 1956 and spanning for more than two decades, the United States Department of State sent American jazz musicians to multiple foreign countries to participate in music-based cross-cultural exchange tours. On these trips, American jazz musicians collaborated on performances with foreign musicians, while also playing shows for their local crowds. The first of these jazz musicians to travel abroad on a State Department tour was Dizzy Gillespie, who formed a big band in 1956 to travel throughout Southern Europe and the Middle East.
The success of the Gillespie tour marked the beginning of the international jazz diplomacy era. Later on, these State Department Jazz Diplomacy tours took famous American musicians such as Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and countless others, all throughout the world, thereby spreading American culture through their music to new eyes and ears. These important steps in cultural diplomacy sought to bridge new connections during a difficult time in American foreign policy. Through the Jazz Diplomacy tours to Eastern Europe, South Asia, and Africa, many former State Department officials have considered these exchanges to be some of the most successful tools of cultural diplomacy that the United States has ever implemented.