How Dizzy Gillespie broke racial barriers as a jazz ambassador in the 1960s

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.


For biographical information on Dizzy Gillespie, please see this entry.

By the Cold War era, artists such as Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie were hugely influential during the “jazz ambassador” movement. According to historian Penny von Eschen, Adam Clayton Powell, a congressman from New York, went to the State Department and said, “Hey, why don’t you send Dizzy abroad as a jazz ambassador?” The appointment of Gillespie as a jazz ambassador was crucial, and he had two distinct conditions in mind: “I want the band to be integrated and I want it to be co-ed,” Gillespie said.

After reaching an agreement that the operation would run in this manner, Gillespie took off on a world tour, playing in regions such as the Middle East, Yugoslavia, India and South Asia. Interestingly, while the U.S. government’s main intent was to send jazz ambassadors throughout the world in order to quell rumours of overt racism in the United States, it actually allowed for these artists to really go “off script” and express themselves without the boundaries that segregation and discrimination had set in the earlier half of the century.

As von Eschen highlights: “In the case of Gillespie, they wanted democracy in action, but they got a lot more democracy and a lot more action than the State Department could ever have dreamed of.”


Swing Low Sweet Cadillac (1967)

Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac is the first of five songs on the live album by Dizzy Gillespie featuring performances recorded in 1967 for the Impulse! label. As musicologist Michael Nastos contends, “A strangely popular album for Dizzy Gillespie, Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac represents a period in his career where he was adapting to the times, keeping his goof factor on board, and individually playing as well as he ever had… This is not an essential listing in the vast discography of such a great jazz artist, but remains a curiosity in his collection, especially considering the two-day time frame where much more music could have been considered to be issued. It is not to be completely ignored, but less worthy than many of his other seminal groundbreaking recordings.”

References:

Michael Nastos. “Dizzy Gillespie: Swing Low Sweet Cadillac” Allmusic.com, 2020. https://www.allmusic.com/album/swing-low-sweet-cadillac-mw0000315145.