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Ghost Canyon

'The Jazz Ambassadors'
(DVD / PG / 2018 / PBS)

Overview: In 1955, as the Soviet Union's pervasive propaganda about the U.S. and American racism spread globally, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. convinced President Eisenhower that jazz was the best way to intervene in the Cold War cultural conflict.

DVD Verdict: For the next decade, America's most influential jazz artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Dave Brubeck, along with their racially-integrated bands, traveled the globe to perform as cultural ambassadors.

But the unrest back home forced them to face a painful moral dilemma: How could they promote the image of a tolerant America abroad when the country still practiced Jim Crow segregation and racial equality remained an unrealized dream?

Told through striking archival film footage, photos, and radio clips, with iconic performances throughout, 'The Jazz Ambassadors' reveals how the U.S. State Department unwittingly gave the burgeoning Civil Rights movement a major voice on the world stage just when it needed one most.

Fascinating from start to finish, this 90 minute documentary - and something that I personally knew nothing about - kept me watching without hesitating for drinks, food, or even conversation.

So, what is it we learn about the man who started this whole shebang off, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.? Well, he was a Baptist pastor and an American politician, who represented Harlem, New York City, in the United States House of Representatives (1945–71).

Indeed, he was the first person of African-American descent to be elected from New York to Congress. Oscar Stanton De Priest of Illinois was the first black person to be elected to Congress in the 20th century; Powell was the fourth. Re-elected for nearly three decades, Powell became a powerful national politician of the Democratic Party, and served as a national spokesman on civil rights and social issues. He also urged United States presidents to support emerging nations in Africa and Asia as they gained independence after colonialism.

In 1961, after 16 years in the House, Powell became chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, the most powerful position held by an African American in Congress. As Chairman, he supported the passage of important social and civil rights legislation under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Following allegations of corruption, in 1967 Powell was excluded from his seat by Democratic Representatives-elect of the 90th Congress, but he was re-elected and regained the seat in the 1969 United States Supreme Court ruling in Powell v. McCormack. He lost his seat in 1970 to Charles Rangel and retired from electoral politics.

But, back to the matter at hand and in January 1956, Gillespie kicked off his tour of the Middle East and Turkey to help counter Soviet stories about American racism; over the next ten years, over 20 tours visited over 100 countries.

Among these was the 1962 tour by Benny Goodman and his integrated of the Soviet Union, the first time that the Russians permitted a foreign jazz band to tour the region. The State Department ended the “Jazz Ambassadors” program after Duke Ellington’s tour of the Middle East and India was cut short by John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

Among the musicians depicted in the documentary are Louis Armstrong performing in the British West African colony of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), where he dedicates the iconic song “Black and Blue,” about the agony of racism, to Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah.

In a press interview after a September 1957 incident in Little Rock, Ark., where white crowds prevented African-American children from entering their school, Armstrong discusses racism in American homes and says he refuses to lie about it overseas.

Directed by Hugo Berkeley, Narrated by Leslie Odom, Jr., and Produced by Mick Csaky, Stephen Segaller, Julie Anderson, Robert Hughes, Sabine Bubeck-Paaz, and Jan Younghusband, this eye-opening story behind 'The Jazz Ambassadors' is yet another must-have in any American's PBS history collection. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.78:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs.