Jazz was the country’s “Secret Sonic Weapon” (as a 1955 headline in The New York Times put it) in another sense as well. The novelist Ralph Ellison called jazz an artistic counterpart to the American political system. The soloist can play anything he wants as long as he stays within the tempo and the chord changes — just as, in a democracy, the individual can say or do whatever he wants as long as he obeys the law. Willis Conover, whose jazz show on Voice of America radio went on the air in 1955 and soon attracted 100 million listeners, many of them behind the Iron Curtain, once said that people “love jazz because they love freedom.”
America continues its cultural hegemony by spreading its talons of soft power around the world. Some say globalization is disguised as Americanization, and that black culture is American culture. In an era of populists and fake news, it’s interesting to ponder which musicians (Kendrick Lamar?) would serve as proper ambassadors today.