In early 1956 Dizzy Gillespie was playing with a small group in Washington, DC, when he received a call from Adam Clayton Powell, who asked him to stop by his office the next day.
Gillespie arrived to find a group of reporters waiting, and Powell made a statement to the press: “I’m going to propose to President Eisenhower that he send this man, who’s a great contributor to our music, on a State Department sponsored cultural mission to Africa, the Near East, the Middle East, and Asia.”
Although Gillespie had a stellar international reputation, the proposal was daring: the U.S. South was in wide disarray over segregation, and the suggestion that a black man should represent the nation abroad was bound to be highly controversial.
Nevertheless, in February of that year the State Department announced a ten-week tour of South Asia, the Near East, and the Balkans by Gillespie and a group of some 20 people—in Gillespie’s words, “an American assortment of blacks, whites, males, females, Jews, and Gentiles.” The U.S. government wanted to send a signal that bigotry was waning at home, and, again in Gillespie’s words,
“They [foreign audiences] could see it wasn’t as intense because we had white boys and I was the leader of the band. That was strange to them because they’d heard about blacks being lynched and burned, and here I come with half whites and blacks and a girl playing in the band. And everybody seemed to be getting along fine. So I didn’t try to hide anything. I said ‘Yeah…we have our problems but we’re still working on it. I’m the leader of this band, and those white guys are working for me.’ That’s a helluva thing.”
This according to “Jazz strategy: Dizzy, foreign policy, and government in 1956” by Scott Gac (Americana IV/1 [Spring 2005]).
Today is Gillespie’s 100th birthday! Above, playing for snakes on the tour in Karachi, Pakistan; below, World statesman, an album recorded with the historic touring group.