Institute of Jazz Studies Photographs Featured in New PBS Documentary Film

Image: c/o Institute of Jazz Studies

By Rutgers University Libraries

A PBS documentary film premiering tonight spotlights resources from the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University–Newark.

Hugo Berkeley’s “The Jazz Ambassadors: The Untold Story of America’s Coolest Weapon in the Cold War” recounts the history of the famous State Department-sponsored programs relying on jazz musicians to contest Soviet propaganda about racial inequality in America. Beginning in 1956 with the Dizzy Gillespie big band and continuing for the next 22 years, racially integrated bands led by jazz icons including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Diaay Gillespie, and Dave Brubeck began touring abroad as cultural ambassadors for the United States—but not without struggling with their own internal conflicts about misrepresenting American race relations in the era of Jim Crow laws.

Renewed interest in the tours followed on the heels of a major 2008 exhibit at Meridian International Center, an organization in Washington, D.C., with a commitment to cultural diplomacy. “The Jazz Ambassadors” was the most popular exhibit in the organization’s history. It toured 10 copies of the exhibition around the U.S. and the world for several years.

Among the extensive archival material featured in the film are photographs culled from several of the Institute of Jazz Studies collections, including the Marshall Winslow Stearns Collection, 1935-1966 and the IJS Photograph Collection. These photographs provide a unique vantage point since Stearns was an official member of the Gillespie tour, in addition to lecturing on jazz history and the context of the music audiences were to hear.

IJS archivist and reference librarian Tad Hershorn had a hand in both the exhibition and the documentary. He did digital restoration on all the photographs in the Meridian show, which came from archives from across the country. Hershorn was also a member of a panel of advisors assembled by Berkeley, the British Peabody Award-winning director who undertook “The Jazz Ambassadors”.

It was a tall order to determine the provenance of certain materials and to help the film’s producers secure permissions to use them, said the institute’s associate director Adriana Cuervo. But to know that they would appear on screen in the context of this powerful narrative was ultimately worth it.

“It was a great opportunity for us to leverage our resources and expertise to highlight this uniquely American approach to diplomacy,” she added.