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Can Music Make Democracy?

‘Ameryka’ Community Conversation Plays Jazz with Politics


(L-R) Daniel Ho, Steve Lehman, and Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn.

At first glance, the words jazz and politics do not necessarily sound like harmonious ideas.

Nonetheless, at Center Theatre Group’s Community Conversation Can Music Make Democracy? on April 8, a panel of notable jazz musicians, scholars, and enthusiasts weaved a web of connections between the two seemingly unlikely modes of thought. The event gave historical context to Critical Mass Performance Group’s Ameryka, playing April 19–29, 2018 as part of Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

The show was inspired in part by the US State Department’s Jazz Ambassador program. Created in 1956, the program sent distinguished jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie overseas—especially to Iron Curtain countries like Poland—to propagate America’s vision of equality and freedom.

Ameryka playwright and director Nancy Keystone learned that American popular culture, particularly movie Westerns, and music, particularly jazz music, were super important in Poland during the Cold War, she explained at the event. And then during the course of [the play’s] research, I discovered there was a photo exhibition of the Jazz Ambassador program, and so I became instantly intrigued.

Audiences in Poland, in particular, welcomed the Jazz Ambassador program with open arms; during this period, Soviets tried to limit Eastern European access to only traditional art forms like ballet and opera. At a time when Soviet communism loomed over the sanctity of democracy, jazz music served as cultural capital that eventually helped America gain political allies as well.

However, the blending of music and politics and the jazz ambassador program were not without controversy. Panelist Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, who is working on a documentary about contemporary female jazz horn players, recounted Louis Armstrong canceling his Moscow tour in protest of loose enforcement of school integration laws in Little Rock, Arkansas. The democratic ideas America tried to spread internationally were largely ignored domestically, especially within African American communities.

Littlejohn added that women were not invited to become jazz ambassadors. After the World Wars, a lot of the women who were banned [from the program] were really big overseas, she said. There was a period in the '50s where women were being shunned and told, ‘It’s time for you to go back into the kitchen. It’s time for you to raise some children.’ Gender inequalities persisted throughout the duration of the program, because many feared that women were taking jobs away from men.

Jazz and politics intersect in other ways, too. Speaker Daniel Ho—a Grammy Award-winning producer, musician, and composer from Hawaii—said that jazz, like democracy, is all about listening. He drew parallels between the structure of big band ensembles and the American government: If we as a country listen to other people, and we come to an agreement, Ho said, then that’s a democracy. Conversely, he argued, If we’re a band, and I’m here to impose my will and execute my agenda, that’s a dictatorship. And I don’t know how many jazz musicians will play with me if that was my attitude about music.

Panelist Steve Lehman—saxophonist and professor of music at the California Institute of the Arts—talked about a more direct link between politics and art. I think about people like Paul Robeson, whose life was in danger because of the ways he tried to integrate his political beliefs with his musical output, Lehman said. I think in some cases, when the stakes are really high for musicians and performers across any genre, he explained, music can transcend social boundaries, and listeners can really connect and engage with that.

Although the Jazz Ambassador program has since dissolved, new cultural ambassador programs around the world have taken its place. Ho served as an artist envoy for the US Embassy of Japan in 2011, right after the Tōhoku earthquake, performing in communities that were devastated by the earthquake and tsunai. Other initiatives even involve young people, like the TOMODACHI Honda Cultural Exchange program, which invited Japanese high schoolers to participate in last year’s Rose Parade in California. International programs such as these build upon a reciprocal relationship of cultural exchange among nations—a notion that Ho is especially proud to take part. It feels so special to represent the US, and it gave my life more purpose rather than just playing music, Ho said. I’m proud to be representing America in that way and sharing music and hopefully happiness.

One thing all the panelists agreed on is that jazz music is just one piece in the larger democracy of sound. Jazz, said Ho, is not set and written and structured, so we have to listen to each other. We all have a say in the direction of our country, of our piece of music.

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