Gillespie’s ‘Rio Pakistan’ was inspired by a Karachi trip, while Ellington’s ‘The Far East Suite’ has traces of the Subcontinent. Both jazz maestros received a lot of adulation in South Asia on tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department, writes Ajay Kamalakaran
In the mid-1950s, the United States was getting badly battered by the Soviet Union in the image war in many parts of the world. While many of the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa saw Moscow as a major supporter of their battle against colonialism, news of racism and segregation in the U.S. was widespread.
With leftist ideologies growing in popularity in India and Pakistan, the U.S. was losing out in South Asia as well. This was one of the factors that led to the formation of the Jazz Ambassadors program, where leading jazz icons such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were sent by the U.S. State Department on tours to countries that Washington wanted to cultivate good relations with.
In 1956, Dizzy Gillespie was chosen to lead an 18-piece band to Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Greece and Yugoslavia. Reports from newspapers of that time indicate that Gillespie managed to establish intimate relationships with people in these countries.
Karachi was the choice of venue for his concert in Pakistan. One of the most iconic images of Gillespie shows him wearing a turban, sitting on the ground and charming a snake with his trumpet in the Pakistani metropolis. While diplomats speak of the smashing success of the concert, there are few first-hand accounts of Gillespie’s time in Karachi.
Maliha Masood, author of Dizzy in Karachi, a book published in 2013, told a website that the concert helped nurture an “entire generation of Pakistanis who were influenced by American pop culture,” including her father.
“He talked about the mad rush for tickets, the impromptu jam session and Dizzy’s signature trumpet with the bent bell,” Masood writes.
The tour was actually supposed to start with a concert in Bombay, but geopolitical tensions played spoilsport. Upset at Washington’s military aid to Pakistan, Jawaharlal Nehru did not allow the concert to take place.
Gillespie was inspired by his brief stay in Karachi, with the end result being his song “Rio Pakistan,” which was released in 1957. The song is one of the oldest jazz compositions to have elements of South Asian music.
Jazz mania in Kabul, Bombay and Colombo
South Asia was witness to American Jazz Diplomacy once again in 1963. This time Duke Ellington’s orchestra performed in Kabul, Delhi, Madras, Calcutta, Bombay, Lahore, Karachi, Dhaka, Colombo and Kandy.
The orchestra’s first stop in the region was Kabul. On September 19, 1963, they performed at the Ghazi stadium. “Ellington attracted the largest paying audience ever assembled for such an event, approximately 4,000,” wrote Thomas Simons Jr., a U.S. State Department officer who escorted the orchestra during the tour. “Never before has there been such a ‘favourable’ proportion of Afghans to Americans and other foreigners, including Soviet citizens who turned out in large numbers. The members of the Ellington Orchestra impressed the Kabulis with their warmth and friendliness. Their readiness to talk to students and other young people on equal terms was favourably remarked.”
The orchestra then flew to India where they would stage 13 concerts over four weeks. Ellington fell sick in the Indian capital. “Ellington was taken of a virus in New Delhi, was unable to appear for the second concert, and was removed to a hospital. He spent five days there with a moderate fever while the band went on to South India,” Simons wrote.
Ellington rejoined his orchestra in Bombay, where they would perform at the Rang Bhavan and the Shanmukhananda Hall. The Indo-American Society gave away a few tickets, but there was a mad rush from the general public to watch the concert. The Rang Bhavan had a capacity of 9,000 and tickets were sold out within hours.
“In Bombay the double line at the ticket office sometimes stretched three blocks, while some persons slept on the sidewalk before the local sponsor’s office to assure first-hand ticket choices,” Simons wrote.
Bombayites marvelled at the live performance of “Take the A Train,” “All of Me” and “I’m Beginning To See The Light” among other hits.
After rejoining the band, Ellington shortened his concerts and was back in full working condition only two and half weeks later when the band arrived in Pakistan. Before Pakistan, there were concerts in Calcutta, Madras, Colombo and Kandy.
In the Sri Lankan capital, the racecourse hosted three concerts.
“Because of an anticipated sell-out on Ellington’s three performances in Colombo the post convinced the local sponsor to schedule all three concerts at the Ceylon Turf Club Race Course,” Simons wrote. “This meant that a rain-proof shell would need to be built in front of the race-course stands for the orchestra to accommodate the crowds. This was fortunate for capacity crowds attended all three concerts despite occasional high winds and driving rain during these performances. The Prime Minister, Governor General, top VIPs with Dean of Diplomatic Corps, Government of Ceylon officials, and leading cultural personalities attended. Word on the success of the first three concerts resulted in capacity audience of over 5,000 at the fourth concert which was held in the Gymnasium of the University of Ceylon.”
Ellington also travelled up-country and performed at the University of Peradeniya. In Kandy he held a jam session for Radio Ceylon.
The orchestra’s first stop in Pakistan was Dhaka, then the biggest city in the country’s eastern wing (now Bangladesh). They stayed in the city for two days and performed for an audience of 2,500, before flying to Lahore.
“Performances were sell-outs and during the short stay in Pakistan ‘the classicist of the American jazz idiom’ was exposed to thousands of students, government officials, and leaders of the community,” according to Simons.
The concerts were heavily promoted in Pakistan since there wasn’t much awareness of Ellington’s music and jazz in general in the country.
Lahore hosted two concerts, while the orchestra performed thrice in Karachi. The visit helped strengthen diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, which were strained at that time.
The Lahore concerts were held at the Bagh-e-Jinnah’s open-air theatre. They were the talk of the town for weeks. The orchestra’s interactions with the members of the public also made them widely loved in Pakistan.
“Duke Ellington and the members of his orchestra in their non-performing hours off stage created a widespread and most favourable impression locally, and in the case of Duke Ellington personally, perhaps an even more important one from our standpoint,” the U.S. Consulate in Lahore said in a statement after the tour.
The Hotel Metropole hosted the Karachi concerts, one of which had standing room only. Ellington also recorded an interview with Radio Pakistan, and the orchestra kept a lecture and demonstration for over 900 university students.
Karachi was the last stop in South Asia before the orchestra proceeded to Tehran.
The South Asia trip inspired Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, who was a part of the orchestra, to compose the Grammy-winning album “The Far East Suite.” Given the names (“Agra” and “Mynah”) and influences of most of the songs in the album, critics have argued that it should have been called the “The Near East Suite” as the real inspiration was indeed South Asia and places like Iran. Over five decades after these performances, it’s hard to imagine that this part of the world played host to some of America’s greatest musicians, who were essentially goodwill ambassadors.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist based in Mumbai. He tweets @AjayKamalakaran