CHICAGO — When one thinks of jazz, diplomacy isn't the first association to come to mind.
But among its vast contributions to the world this American-born music is a remarkably potent tool for cultivating understanding across cultures.
With my jazz quartet, I have taken multiple international tours sponsored by the US State Department. The mission of the tours was to reach out to areas of the world — often to places with strained relationships with the United States — and share American culture.
The goal: creating goodwill through music and specifically jazz.
At its best, a jazz ensemble exemplifies humility, open-mindedness, soul, vision, communication, a respect and knowledge of the music’s history, teamwork and the critical values of listening and empathy. The music is a dynamic conversation that the performers create together in the moment.
Music is a universal language. In many of the places we visited, music was a critical element in everyday life — inseparable from religious practices and daily rituals. It didn’t matter that we were playing American music. The elements of rhythm, melody and harmony and our passion for playing and listening were common to us all.
While most of our tour events started with my group performing and demonstrating aspects of our music, the most poignant moments happened when local musicians and artists came on stage and we all played together. Audiences would immediately pick up on how we were adapting to one another, and the tenor of the room would swiftly open.
Jamming at Tuku Music School in Norton, Zimbabwe. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cohan.
On some of our tour stops, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this transformation was dramatic. Lubumbashi was a seemingly lawless region with a palpable tension constantly in the air.
Besides being totally unfamiliar with jazz, most locals had never seen an American in person. That unfamiliarity worked both ways. The latest impression we had of them came a month before our trip from a front-page photo on The New York Times depicting a Congolese man with a machete over his head.
From the start, our audiences were not sure what to make of us and vice-versa. Immediately after we began playing, though, that changed. The crowd took to our music and became very inquisitive about how we improvised and played together.
Local percussionists, instrumentalists and traditional Congolese dance groups then showed up to eagerly demonstrate their styles, and soon we were all playing together. For the next five days in the DRC, word of our visit spread, and we were met by enthusiastic students at our events — some traveling long distances to attend.
Doudou N'diaye Rose group performs in Butare, Rwanda. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cohan.
We had interactive discussions at schools about our music and how it related to American culture, as well as conversations on the evolution of their music and many facets of our two separate cultures. The DRC has some of the worst poverty in the world. Most people only eat one meal a day, if that.
In that environment, however, we were taught about generosity and grace. Folks we met would invite us into their homes to share their daily meal with us. Jazz was the catalyst for opening dialogues and broadening our appreciation and knowledge of one another.
In a tour of Jordan, we were pre-emptively advised that local audiences in Amman were typically reserved and that the last visiting group was met by a crowd member who stood up mid-performance to proclaim his objection to American politics. Right before a major concert, we met with several journalists who asked us provocative questions on US policy in the Middle East among others, to which we simply responded on how we were there to share our music and learn from their culture.
Once again, we were not sure how we would be received by our audience.
That night, the band played well-known jazz standards, and between selections, discussed the music and how we had been enjoying working with notable Jordanian musicians and conservatory students we met. The crowd grew very engaged, and by the end, gave us two standing ovations and prompted an encore — something our embassy hosts had not seen before.
Pianist Ryan Cohan's master class in Lubumbashi, DRC. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cohan.
After the concert many audience members enthusiastically came up to us to share their stories about their ties to jazz, and to express their appreciation of our sincerity in sharing our music with them. They wanted to engage us after realizing our commonalities. They didn't want to close themselves off to us because of our differences.
Jazz initiated all these connections.
Its core values are key for building any type of relationship, and the music has the ability to convey and translate intention and meaning at a human level better than any other language.
Plus, and maybe most importantly: no matter where you are on the planet, jazz swings, grooves and draws you in.
Ryan Cohan is a Chicago-based pianist/composer and Guggenheim Fellow. His newly released CD, "The River," was inspired by his touring Africa and is available at Amazon.com and iTunes. For more info visit: ryancohan.com.