April 28, 2023 | New York Post

Let’s use jazz to push back against Russia — it once worked before!

April 28, 2023 | New York Post

Let’s use jazz to push back against Russia — it once worked before!

I like to joke that I moved to the United States from my homeland of Serbia because of American “psychological warfare.”

But it wasn’t shadowy CIA operations that won my “heart and mind.”

It was American music, particularly the jazz played by the likes of David Brubeck and Miles Davis.

As the world prepares to celebrate the International Day of Jazz on Sunday, Washington would do well to remember jazz’s potency as a tool of American “soft power.”

During the Cold War, jazz was arguably America’s most powerful non-nuclear weapon: It was music, not bullets, that contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The United States used American music, including jazz, to offer a glimpse of freedom to people living under repressive regimes.

In the former Yugoslavia, jazz helped America appeal to Yugoslav society and counter Moscow’s influence.

As a child, I played the piano.

While the music school curriculum required classical music pieces such as Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev or Stravinsky, my classmates and I spent every spare moment playing jazz.

Our curricula demanded rote memorization and discouraged critical thinking.

But jazz allowed me to express myself through improvisation and creativity — something Tchaikovsky could not offer.

Even after the end of the Cold War, it was difficult to buy foreign jazz albums.

Belgrade’s Jazz Festival was canceled until 2005.

Nevertheless, I fell deeper in love with jazz — and the United States — while listening to old records by Bill Evans, Art Blakey and John Coltrane.

I was not the only one.

American jazz drew the attention of millions of people globally.

It symbolized American democracy, freedom and individualism.

During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union understood the power of art.

The Soviet Union conducted international ballet performances via the Bolshoi Theater and operas.

These classical, unchanging performances promoted Soviet cultural values surrounding tradition and order.

During the civil rights movement in the 1950s, the US State Department employed an army of jazz artists to counter Soviet propaganda and promote America’s image as a free country.

In 1954, US Information Agency chief Theodore Streibert said: “Our job is to tell the world who we are, what we stand for and what we believe in.”

In 1955, the Voice of America started a jazz program with Willis Conover, who introduced jazz music to millions of people behind the Iron Curtain.

The next year, the United States established the Cultural Presentations Program.

This program sent jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to promote American democracy globally and dispel Soviet propaganda highlighting racism in the United States.

Of course, the Soviet Union’s repressive regime feared jazz’s encouragement of individualism and rebelliousness.

Soon after assuming power, Stalin banned the saxophone and jazz.

Later, Khrushchev remarked that “when he heard jazz,” it was like he “had gas in the stomach.”

Putin’s digestive system was more resilient to the jazz virus.

Last year during Russian Jazz’s 100-year anniversary, he stated: “Music is a kind of Esperanto, an international language that needs no translation, a language that brings people together.”

But Putin remembers the Cold War.

Moscow has blamed America’s use of information and psychological warfare for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin has since retaliated with his own destabilization operations, exploiting America’s political and racial divides.

Since the Cold War, many of America’s soft-power tools have fallen out of use.

Jazz is no exception.

But that should change.

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken has rightly pointed out, “America’s arts and culture are a major source of our national strength, our musicians captivate the world.”

The United States should put Russia and other authoritarian regimes on the defensive by dusting off its jazz playbook.

For example, the US State Department could produce a short video on the history of jazz during the Cold War.

This video could invite modern jazz artists around the world to discuss how the United States has shaped their music and thinking.

The Kremlin loves to accuse the West of “Russophobia.”

The US government should counter this narrative by emphasizing how “Russian Jazz” represents a history of cultural friendship and cooperation between Washington and Moscow.

It was Putin, not the United States, who destroyed US-Russia relations and stifled bilateral cultural exchanges.

This Sunday, US embassies across the globe should remind people who live in authoritarian systems to turn up the volume the next time they hear Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong.

Let Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remember that jazz will always symbolize democracy and freedom.

Ivana Stradner is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Ivana on Twitter @ivanastradner. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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