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Arts & Culture

The Jazz Ambassadors

Louis Armstrong and his wife Lucille pose in front of the Sphinx near Cairo, Egypt in 1961.
Courtesy of Louis Armstrong House Museum
Louis Armstrong and his wife Lucille pose in front of the Sphinx near Cairo, Egypt in 1961.

Airs Friday, April 30, 2021 at 8 p.m. on KPBS 2

The Cold War and Civil Rights movement collide in this remarkable story of music, diplomacy and race.

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

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.

Leslie Odom, Jr. narrates the film.

Notable Talent:

Noteworthy Facts:

  • Spurred by presenter Willis Conover’s hugely-popular "Voice of America" radio show, audiences worldwide develop a passion for American jazz.
  • When Louis Armstrong plays before more than 100,000 people in West Africa, U.S. diplomats take note, thinking that jazz could give America an edge in the Cold War.
  • In January 1956, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie kicks off his tour of the Middle East and Turkey to help counter Soviet stories about American racism.
  • Over the next 10 years, more than 20 tours featuring renowned jazz musicians visit over 100 countries, giving Civil Rights an international platform even while the performers themselves questioned representing a nation still roiling with segregation and intolerance.
  • Benny Goodman and his mixed-race band’s 1962 tour of the Soviet Union was the first time that the Russians permitted a foreign jazz band to tour the region.
  • The U.S. State Department scaled back the Jazz Ambassadors program when Duke Ellington’s tour of the Middle East and India was tragically cut short by JFK’s assassination.

Buzzworthy Moments:

  • 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.
  • Quincy Jones shares his incredible experiences at age 22 as Dizzy Gillespie’s musical director, arranger and trumpet player with the band, performing in countries including Iraq, Iran, Syria and Pakistan.
  • In a press interview after the September 1957 incident in Little Rock, Arkansas where white crowds prevented African American children from entering their school, Louis Armstrong discusses racism in American homes and says he refuses to lie about it overseas.
  • In a rare interview on Swedish television amidst the U.S. struggle towards Civil Rights, Duke Ellington discusses the sacrifices and cultural contributions made by African Americans, as well as jazz being recognized as “the American Music” while the genre was “mostly Negro.”

Watch On Your Schedule:

This program is no longer available to stream on demand on PBS. You can purchase or rent the film on Amazon Prime Video.


A co-production of THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET and Antelope South Limited and Normal Life Pictures, in association with the BBC and ZDF, in collaboration with ARTE. Directed by Peabody Award-winner Hugo Berkeley and produced by Emmy-winner Mick Csáky. For THIRTEEN: Benjamin Phelps is coordinating producer, Julie Anderson is executive producer and Stephen Segaller is executive in charge.