U-M Jazz Band on one stop of their Latin America tour
Jazz PlayerJazz Band

¡Cuba, si, Yanquis, no!

Both notes and gunshots rang out in 1965.
Forty-five years later, band members reunite.
Their story has never been told.

It was 1965, the height of the Cold War. The tension of the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war, was still fresh in the country’s collective psyche. The U.S. State Department had been sending musicians—professionals, like Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Blood, Sweat and Tears—into countries susceptible to the lure of communism, on cultural exchange programs aimed at winning hearts and minds.

In January of that year, nineteen U-M students were sent on one of those tours, this one to Latin America and the Caribbean. Led by Bruce Fisher (BM ’66, MM ’68), the band toured fifteen countries, performing some 100 concerts, returning to the U.S. that May.

The U-M Jazz Band had come to the State Department’s attention at the 1963 Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival, where their pianist, Mike Lang (BM ’63), had won the competition’s outstanding instrumentalist award (the previous year, jazz legend Bob James, BM ’61, MM ’63, and his combo had taken away the top prize).

Although the Jazz Band had been unofficially recognized by William Revelli and had even been presented as part of the 1964 Band-O-Rama concert, it was a grassroots effort, as they struggled to find rehearsal space, chipping in for a room at the Y, and paying their own way to festivals like the one in South Bend. Jazz was still looked upon with suspicion and was certainly not yet part of the curriculum (today the SMTD has one of the most highly rated jazz programs in the country). If you wanted to pursue this dangerous form of music, that was fine. But it was on your own time and your own dollar.

In fact, when a State Department representative asked the School’s dean if the jazz band could go on tour, James Wallace replied, “What jazz band?” Nevertheless, Wallace agreed, and appointed a young instructor of musicology named Richard Crawford—not that much older than the students in the band—to accompany the musicians as official representative of the University of Michigan. The State Department took care of the rest.

The tour took them to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador, Paraguay, Surinam, Venezuela—to areas so remote that on one occasion their modest public address system blew out the electricity for an entire village—to urban centers where they appeared on radio-television broadcasts. John Miller (BM ’68, double bass), in an article by Danielle Fosler-Lussier,* likened Quito, Ecuador to Paris.

“They were the most sophisticated, well-dressed, hip audience I’d ever seen,” he said. In a later comment to The Muse, he added, “I don’t know where they came from. I didn’t see any of these people outside before the concert and I didn’t see any of these people outside after the concert.”

For the most part, the tour was a success, as these ‘musical ambassadors’ made their way by plane from country to country and by bus from village to village. The players varied their repertoire as they learned to gauge the sophistication—and tolerance—of their ever-changing audiences.

At one stop, however, they were heckled and bombarded with paper airplanes inscribed “¡Cuba, Si, Yanquis, No!” And in spite of the State Department’s assurance that “Uncle Sam has his finger on the pulse of Latin American politics,” the trip ended on an unexpectedly dramatic note when the band, having just arrived in the Dominican Republic, found itself in the midst of an incipient revolution.

The rebels had taken over much of the city and the fighting was moving closer and closer to their hotel. All hotel staff had vacated the premises. After what seemed an interminable wait the students were picked up by military trucks and evacuated to a Navy base in Puerto Rico. But the show went on, as they flew to their final destination for their last few concerts in Kingston and Montego Bay.

The group solidarity that would emerge from such a shared experience was enormous, as you might imagine. But over the years, the tour members went on with their lives and contact was on the wane.

………..

Fast forward to 2006. Richard Crawford, now the Hans T. David Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Musicology, was at Ohio State presenting a paper. In the audience was OSU faculty member Danielle Fosler-Lussier, whose special area of interest is U.S. sponsorship of musical performances during the Cold War.

During their post-lecture conversation, it came out that Crawford had accompanied the Jazz Band on that 1965 trip. “You were on the Michigan tour?” asked the incredulous Fosler-Lussier. Of course she was interested in the story for her research and began to contact band members who had been on the tour.

That serendipitous encounter became the catalyst for a long-overdue reunion of the band, some 45 years later. “My wife said, ‘honey, it’s now or never,” says Lanny Austin (BM ’66, MM ’67, saxophone), who organized the get-together. In October, Jazz Band members—the ones who could be found—congregated at an Ann Arbor hotel for cocktails and reminiscences. The next night, some of them—the ones who have kept up their chops over the years—sat in on two numbers from that tour, with Ellen Rowe’s U-M Jazz Ensemble in a performance at Rackham Auditorium.

“I was absolutely thrilled to be able to get to know these men and help our current students connect to the wonderful legacy of jazz at Michigan,” Rowe said. “Their trailblazing efforts paved the way for today’s generation of jazz students here at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.” 

In introducing the Jazz Band that night, Steven Whiting, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and a member of the musicology faculty, commented:

“Several years ago, as the School was preparing to celebrate its 125th anniversary, I learned quite a lot about another historic tour:  William Revelli and the University Band were sent, also by the State Department, to east Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Near East. One member of that band, saxophone Professor Don Sinta, left me in no doubt about Chief Revelli’s low opinion of jazz. I suspect that’s why a student-organized jazz band in 1964 could have come to the notice of the U.S. State Department before it came to the notice of then Dean Wallace.

"Times are different now. Jazz is a department in its own right, offering three different bachelor’s degree programs and a master’s program. Musicologists teach the history of jazz. Music theorists teach the analysis of jazz. We have two big bands, an improvising orchestra, and countless combos—all highly selective, all with audition repertoire published on the Web site. Jazz and contemporary improvisation is a substantial curricular, artistic, and scholarly presence at the School.

"Gentlemen of the 1964 jazz band, I hope you feel the pride of pioneers. You got something going and growing under less than favorable conditions. Without suggesting that jazz thrives best in adversity, may I express the hope that it keeps going and growing . . .  even in times of official, institutional favor!”

*Danielle Fosler-Lussier, “Cultural Diplomacy as Cultural Globalization: The University of Michigan Jazz Band in Latin America,” forthcoming in the Journal of the Society for American Music, 2010

With thanks to Lanny Austin, Jose Mallare, and Richard Crawford.