The New Jazz Ambassadors

America dispatches musicians to conflict zones

The gardens of the al-Rasheed hotel in Baghdad, Iraq were the unlikely setting for a concert featuring American jazz musician Alvin Atkinson on April 4th. The strains of classic numbers such as ‘Take the A Train’ by Duke Ellington, rang out into the Baghdad air in the shadow of a hotel synonymous with the regime of former President Saddam Hussein. The performance in the Baghdad ‘Green Zone’ from New York’s Alvin Atkinson and the Sound Merchants came almost 50 years after jazz legend Ellington himself played in the Iraqi capital.
According to Atkinson, « Jazz has always been a story of multi-culture, » and so it was appropriate that during a set that lasted for over one hour, there was also a session with an Iraqi band that played traditional Arabic music. The Atkinson tour has featured two other performances in Iraq, in Kurdish Irbil and the historic archaeological city of Ur, as well as a performance in the University of Balamand, Lebanon.

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The funding for the State Department bureau that runs Musical Overtures and other cultural programs expanded under President George W. Bush from $900,000 to $10 million in 2008. The budget for 2009 is set at $8.5 million. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has underlined the need for cultural exchanges as part of the Obama administration’s emphasis on « smart power », namely, using non-military means as a way to expand American influence throughout the world.
The new Jazz Ambassadors clearly have a crucial role to play in restoring US relations with the people of conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems that music speaks louder than words.
Mat Noblett
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