Thursday, November 21, 2013

Duke in the USSR

Jam Session in the U.S.S.R. Duke playing balalaika. source
The first time I saw Dr. Harvey G. Cohen was in one of his King’s College London lectures about Duke Ellington's America (politics of race), also the title of his Ellington book. Later, I contacted him about the State Department tour of 1963 which I mused about here and hopefully, I'm going to meet Mr. Cohen again to hear his take on this tour for which I'm making a short film.

However, today I mentioned Mr. Cohen for a slightly different reason, or for a different "trip". I just learned that he's authored a long essay on Ellington's second tour of the East which shares many of the socio-political contexts of the first one. Originally published on the journal of Popular Music as Visions of Freedom: Duke Ellington in the Soviet Union (2011), the essay explains the Ellington's second State Department sponsored tour. Mr. Cohen, in the abstract to the paper, writes:

"The Soviet tour occurred during the efforts of President Richard Nixon to establish détente at the height of the Cold War between the United States, the Soviet Union and China. Ellington found not just acceptance in Communist and satellite countries, but rabid enthusiasm that belied official Soviet government disdain or censorship of American jazz. While he was magnanimous as usual to Soviet fans and engaged in no political grandstanding, Ellington wanted his performances and presence to embody the differences between what he viewed as the freedom and democracy of his home country, and the current situation in the Soviet Union. Ellington’s multi-layered vision of freedom, and the various struggles that he, the band, and State Department officials encountered during the tour provided a sharp contrast to the domineering official Soviet presence. The tour exposed the limits of what the closed society of the Soviet government could shield from their own people. Ellington made a strong impact, the strongest that any American artist had yet made in the Soviet Union."
Of course, Ellington wasn't the first jazz musican to take a walk on the Red Square. Before him, Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines and Charles Lloyd had played in the USSR. But for various and the most obvious of reasons he was the most anticipated jazzman in the Soviet Union.

Cohen examines the various aspects of that visit, from what Ellington earned ($19,000 per week, almost $100,000 in today’s dollars) to where he played (22 sold-out shows in 5 locales over 33 days for a combined audience of 126,000) and in his essay captures the Ellington-mania of the Soviets. In this video, though from Yugoslavia and not the USSR, a part of the Eastern Bloc expedition is shown:

Cohen also talks of minor and major complications. The major one's are related to the USSR government's fear of Ellington, his fame and jazz in general, and the minor ones could be as trivial, nevertheless Dukish, as this:
"In the last years of his life, he drank 6-7 glasses of Coca Cola per day, with several spoonfuls of sugar and fresh lime or lemon juice added, and he felt it necessary to continue this energy enhancing regimen on his Soviet tour...[but] Coca Cola had not yet arrived in the Soviet Union, [so] the U.S. embassy in Moscow offered to supply 15 cases of it for his exclusive use (not the orchestra’s)."
There are too many of this stories in Mr. Cohen's essay, plus his analysis of the US-USSR relation during the Nixon adminstration. Thanks to Mr. Cohen, the paper is accessible for download here.


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