Christmas Day, 1956, Kuala Lumpur: As the “King of Swing” Benny Goodman serenaded more than 3,000 fans crowding the Chin Woo auditorium, his band “heard what [they] thought was thunder” above the crowd’s cheers and asked the American cultural attaché Dr. Bill Braum about the weather. “That’s not thunder,” he replied. “They are using artillery on terrorists in the jungle—four miles away.” Those “terrorists” were presumably Malayan National Liberation Army guerrillas fighting on behalf of the Malayan Communist Party against British colonial forces. The Malayan Emergency, as the conflict was called, had been raging on since 1948 against the global backdrop of the Cold War.
Goodman was leading a State Department-sponsored tour of East Asia as part of a United States Information Service (USIS) program to improve perceptions of the U.S. Fearing the rise of Communism in Vietnam, Malaya, and other Southeast Asian nations, the State Department sought to promote American culture through public diplomacy. Jazz ambassadors, Voice of America broadcasts, and other initiatives by the United States Information Agency (USIA) contributed to this information war. The USIS also relied on cooperation with the British Foreign Office to coordinate efforts in current or previous British colonial possessions such as Malaya and Burma.
This exhibition highlights photographs, correspondence, clippings, and other archival materials from the Benny Goodman Papers in the Gilmore Music Library. Put together, they present the public face as well as offer a glimpse behind the scenes of Benny Goodman’s pivotal 1956–57 jazz tour of Asia. As a strategic move, it was crucial that Goodman’s music highlighted “American” values. For example, the program booklet for Goodman’s concerts in Thailand emphasized the “tribal rhythms of African ancestors … the Creoles’ music, rich with French and Spanish influences” in jazz, which “by its very nature encourages free expression and the seeking of new outlets.” Here we see a desire to portray America as a diverse and liberal society, even as it was rocked by segregation and civil rights struggles. Meanwhile, the American press was quick to proclaim Goodman’s success in Asia, perhaps as a means of bolstering morale back home. I hope that as you examine the publicity behind the tour, you ask yourself: who was this meant for? Why was this audience important?
Meanwhile, personal correspondence by Hal F. Davis, the manager of the Asia tour, shares wide-eyed anecdotes about Southeast Asian kings, palaces, and dignitaries. Indeed, Southeast Asia then was as diverse and colorful as it is today, and Goodman’s tour was as much about promoting the U.S. as it was about opening a window into the region for eager American eyes. The press leapt at the chance to publish photos of the “King of Swing” shaking hands with the King of Thailand. Indeed, the King of Thailand (he is still reigning today, almost six decades later!) loves jazz and became known as an excellent saxophone player. While in Southeast Asia, Goodman jammed with many local musicians, some of which is captured in the Jazz & Hot Dance in Thailand LP. I hope that you will enjoy exploring this fascinating slice of the Cold War era, set in the vibrant and sometimes enigmatic region of Southeast Asia.
Indeed, the breadth and depth of the material available from the archives is astounding. I’m grateful for the wonderful help and support by Richard Boursy and Suzanne Lovejoy from the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library for helping me navigate the library’s resources. I’m also grateful to my course professor Dr. Rebekah Ahrendt for highlighting the usefulness of the library as a resource for my paper. I hope other students will look into using these resources; the feeling of reading old telegrams by musical legends or coming across old photographs featuring people like U Thant or a young King of Thailand is simply incredible.
On that Christmas day, both the information and military Cold Wars were on full display. Too often we think about the Cold War in terms of covert wars and nuclear brinkmanship. In fact, another battle was being fought: a battle using jazz and radios to win the hearts and minds of the world.
—Eugene Lim ’18
This exhibition developed from a term paper Eugene wrote for Rebekah Ahrendt’s freshman seminar on Music and Diplomacy in Spring 2015. Eugene investigated archival sources not only at Yale, but also in Singapore and London, a depth of research that is truly extraordinary in a paper for a freshman seminar. Since much of his research was conducted with the Benny Goodman Papers at the Gilmore Music Library, we decided that an exhibit was an appropriate way to highlight Eugene’s achievement, and to bring this fascinating historical episode to a larger audience.
—Richard Boursy, Archivist