Downbeat Diplomacy for Black Musicians at International Jazz Day

At last week’s International Jazz Day in Osaka, Japan, African-American performers opened up about their role in bridging cultures with music.

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Roy Hargrove, Esperanza Spalding and Troy Roberts perform on stage at the 2014 International Jazz Day concert on April 30, 2014, in Osaka, Japan. Keith Tsuji/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz

Porter, who brought the house down with a riveting take of his recent song “Liquid Spirit,” said that when he started touring in Eastern Europe, he begin realizing that as a jazz singer, he, too, was a cultural ambassador. Growing up in Bakersfield, Calif., in the 1980s when thoughts of Russia dropping a nuclear bomb on the U.S. ran rampant, Porter developed an irrational wariness of Russians from the numerous nuclear bomb drills he participated in during high school. “The teachers, whether they were being smart or ignorant, would say, ‘This is to protect you from the bombs that’s coming from Russia,’” he recalled. His perception changed once he toured there. “[The Russians] were soulful, warm and kindhearted. I saw my mother a hundred times in Russia.”

“At concerts they would be sitting at the edge of their seats wanting this music without fully understanding the words of the songs but understanding the vibe and the energy,” Porter continued. “That’s when I realized that I’m bringing jazz; I’m bringing black American church; I’m bringing a different side of black men; I’m bringing a whole bunch of different things to Russia.”

During the panel discussion that was part of the event, Porter was asked to discuss the diplomatic power of jazz to break down cultural barriers and to stimulate mutual understanding and productive intercultural dialogue. He responded by first singing verses from “What a Wonderful World”—a song made popular by Armstrong. Then he sang a verse from “Nature Boy” before segueing into his own composition “No Love Dying.” Then Porter elaborated: “The energies of those words; the energies of those melodies affect people all over the world. I know it—not just because I read in a book—I know because I’ve been all over the world now and have seen it happen from Russia to South Africa to the Ukraine.

John Murph is a Washington, D.C.-based writer. He has written for the Washington Post, NPR, The Atlantic, JazzTimes and DownBeat.

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