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(Published: January 26, 2019)

Happy, smiling and excited Jazz music fans were lined up way ahead of time on the Sunday morning of April 8, 2018, at The Carolina Theater in downtown Durham, North Carolina for The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival's world premiere of the much-talked about documentary movie, "The Jazz Ambassadors: The Untold Story of America's Coolest Weapon in The Cold War." The festival's organizers made a good move when they selected Durham to show the movie for the very first time anywhere in the world. Durham, once known as a "smelly tobacco town" where cigarettes were once made, is now a gritty-looking, diverse, culturally-rich, intellectually-driven, compact city, home of North Carolina Central University and Duke University, one the sponsors of the festival.

"The Bull City," (Bull Durham cigarettes) as Durham is called, has a long history of jazz, a 24-hour jazz radio station (WNCU-FM), is the site of the swinging world-famous North Carolina Central University Jazz Ensembles and has had a thriving vibrant jazz community with clubs, schools and universities contributing mightily to the mix since the 1940s, when the big bands and others entertainers like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Cab Callaway performed at the local colleges, universities, venues and clubs.
Durham is also located near the cities of Raleigh (state capital and the home of North Carolina State University, Shaw University and St. Augustine's University), Chapel Hill (home of the University of North Carolina), and Cary (home of the software company SAS International).

Jazz is enjoyed and presented at clubs, venues, colleges, universities with jazz studies departments and festivals in all of these cities as well as in surrounding suburb communities. That's why it was no surprise to jazz lovers that the screening was sold out and that some people had to be turned away.

As excitement filled the air that crisp April morning, the screening's host announced that the director, London-based Hugo Berkeley, was in attendance, and that he would take questions after the screening. The host explained that the documentary, contained music, rare film footages, scenes featuring jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Dave Brubeck and others and commentary and analysis from scholars such as Duke University professor Adriane Lentz-Smith, who was listed as an advisor to the film, and UCLA professor Robin D.G. Kelley. She said that it would show and describe what took place during the late 1950s and the 1960s, when a select group of jazz musicians were sent on world tours to help ease the "Cold War" tensions between America and Russia and to show the world that the United States was an example of what a democracy should look like.

After that announcement, the crowd was ready to see a film about what some of them probably thought would be about happy, smiling, joyous, grinning African-American musicians who were glad to share their talents and to be seen as proud good-will American ambassadors to the world.

About five or ten minutes into the movie, some in the audience, especially the ones who knew something about the era of Jim Crow or legal segregation in America, realized that this would not be the case. One of the first scenes featured a usually smiling Louis Armstrong, not grinning from ear to ear. He was having second thoughts about going on any "good will" trip. "The way they are treating my people down in the South the government can go to hell," he said, referring to how poorly African-American students were treated when they tried to desegregate a school in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. That statement, that quote from someone who most folks considered a "non-threatening Negro" or a "happy Uncle Tom," pretty much summed up how the 90-minute movie would bring blank stares and silence from those in the audience who came to see a movie about a "jazz jam session" and a smile and an a-men or two from those who knew better.

Another highlight was when Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. United States Representative from Harlem, who was the first to advocate using jazz musicians as good will ambassadors, introduced Cheraw, South Carolina native trumpeter John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie as being a perfect and "cool" ambassador. In the movie, historian Robin D.G. Kelley explained the irony: "Dizzy was already well known throughout the world. He was known internationally, had fans all over the world. Dizzy was also a card-carrying member of the Communist Party who had been an activist in the civil rights movement for years." Dizzy's band drummer Charlie Persip, who accompanied Dizzy on the tour and who appeared in the movie, said: "Dizzy didn't sugar coat some the horrors that black people were experiencing. He was not about to let America off the hook. We all felt that way." The movie also quotes Duke Ellington talking about how "the Negroes," as he called them, were rightly protesting their condition in America and that he thought it was time for their status to improve.

Thus, the movie "The Jazz Ambassadors" made a serious and a thought-provoking impact on the crowd at its April 8, 2018 world premiere in Durham, North Carolina, that sunny Sunday morning, so much so, that there was complete quiet when it was over. Finally, after a few long seconds, there was applause. The director Hugo Berkeley, a Princeton University graduate with a British accent, took a few questions, expressed his thanks to all who came out. He admitted that he was surprised to see the capacity crowd and said that he hadn't been aware of North Carolina's role in the history of jazz music.

Later, the film went on a tour, with stops, which included The Newport Beach (California) Film Festival, The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and The Harlem International Film Festival, where it won an award for the best documentary film for 2018. In the spring of 2018, it was also shown on UK BBC4 television and on America's Public Broadcasting System (PBS). "The Jazz Ambassadors" is also available on DVD (www.pbs.org).

More Information: https://www.pbs.org

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