When most people think of jazz, they think of a musical genre that has stayed to itself throughout America’s history. They think it is a genre that, like classical, has been aimed at a very specific audience. However, in the mid 1950s and early 1960s, jazz took to the world stage thanks to the cold war and other global issues. In the process, its rise around the world also helped to bring more attention not only to itself, but to the racial disparity and civil rights movement that was growing back home. That story of jazz’s global reach is the basis for PBS’ recently released documentary The Jazz Ambassadors. Released late this past June, the documentary’s story is the most important of its elements. It will be discussed shortly. The story’s transitions play their own crucial part to its overall presentation, and will be discussed a little later. The interviews, pictures and footage used to help tell the story round out its most important elements. Each item noted here is important in its own way. All things considered, they make The Jazz Ambassadors a far-reaching presentation that will appeal to students and lovers of music, politics and jazz alike.
PBS’ recently released documentary The Jazz Ambassadors is a far-reaching documentary about the relationship between the worlds of jazz and politics that is certain to appeal to students and lovers of both realms. That is due in no small part to the 90-minute documentary’s story. As already noted, the story at the center of this program focuses on the unlikely relationship between the worlds of jazz and global politics during the mid 1950s and early 1960s. The story starts at the start of the Cold War, with Russia pointing out the blatant racism that plagued America, and the attempt by American political forces to change that view. The American government’s response was to send some of the biggest names in the jazz world to Russia, India, Africa and other nations as “ambassadors.” The reaction from those acts – many of which were desegregated – actually had unintended results. By sending acts such as Duke Ellington, The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Dizzie Gillespie and others overseas, their music brought more attention to the plight of African-Americans at the time while also raising the profile of jazz around the world. Audiences will be surprised to find out that one act in particular – Louis Armstrong – even clashed with the government at one point over its efforts. Not to give away too much, but at one point, Armstrong had some very strong words for Ike Eisenhower. These are just some of the interesting elements that make Jazz Ambassadors’ story so interesting. The revelation that Armstrong unwittingly helped the American government in a conflict in Africa is just as interesting to note, as is then President John F. Kennedy’s reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. This is included in the final chapter of the documentary. Between all of this and so much more presented from start to finish, the story at the center of The Jazz Ambassadors gives the already noted audiences plenty to appreciate. It is of course just one of the elements that makes the documentary stand out. The story’s transitions play their own important role in the doc’s presentation.
The transitions used throughout the course of the story are subtle, but do so much for the doc’s overall presentation. It is not obvious at first, but the transitions appear in the form of quotes in white, set against a black background. Those quotes set the scene for each of the program’s chapters. At first glance, the quotes don’t seem like much, but in hindsight, they make plenty of sense as each segment progresses. Case in point, the final segment introducing Duke Ellington’s role in the government’s PR efforts. It opens with a quote from Ellington about being able to speak about the government’s actions if one disagrees with what is going on. This plays into the segment as the interviewees talk about Ellington’s trip to India with his orchestra and what happened while they were there. The quotes from the Polish and Russian musicians that lead into the segments focusing on their reaction to meeting the American jazz stars work just as well, as those stories are told, as are the other quotes and their segments. Keeping all of this in mind, the break points are not only placed well, but fully functional, too. To that end, they help keep the program moving fluidly while also proving key to each segment in their own right. When this is considered along with the story itself, both elements go a long way toward keeping the program engaging throughout. While they do plenty collectively to keep audiences entertained, they are not the only elements to note in examining the program’s presentation. The collected interviews, footage and pictures used to tell the story round out the most important of its elements.
The interviews, footage and pictures included in The Jazz Ambassadors are collectively, the foundation of the program. Without their inclusion in the program, there would be no program to speak of. From academics, authors and ordinary musicians who had first-hand encounters with the noted celebrities to the artists’ family and fellow musicians, viewers are offered plenty of engaging insights and stories about the international trips taken by Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and others “employed” by the U.S. government. The footage gives audiences a rare chance to hear the noted audiences in settings outside the studio, both in interview and performing settings. Those moments create their own entertainment and engagement, too. The archived photos add even more interest and depth to the program because they serve to illustrate the items discussed by the interviewees. As minor as it may seem in itself, it does plenty to keep viewers engaged, especially considering the sometimes slower pace of the story. To that end, those visual aids, coupled with the discussions, prove hugely important to the program’s presentation. When they are coupled with that noted archived footage, the whole of those elements proves critical to the program’s presentation. Next to the story itself, they are among the most important of the program’s whole. When they are considered along with the program’s transitions, all three elements together make The Jazz Ambassadors an important presentation about not only the history of jazz, but of political history, too. In other words, it proves to be a far-reaching presentation that will appeal to plenty of audiences.
PBS’ recently released historical work The Jazz Ambassadors is an intriguing presentation that will appeal to a wide range of audiences. It is a program that outlines a key period in the history of jazz and the history of America’s political and social upheaval. This is done by outlining how the two worlds collided in unlikely fashion, ultimately leading to a growth of jazz’s popularity globally and of the importance of the civil rights movement in America. The stories and insight offered by the interviewees ensure audiences’ engagement and entertainment throughout the story. The same can be said of the transitions used to divide the program’s segments and keep the program moving. When they are all combined, they make the program in whole a presentation that the noted audiences will agree is an important addition to their libraries and classrooms. It is available now and can be ordered online direct via PBS’ online store. More information on this and other titles from PBS is available online now at:
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