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Back in the 1950s, with the Cold War at full tilt, the government of the United States was looking for ways to build a stronger international reputation and greater sympathy for the cause of democracy. With the Soviet Union engaged in an aggressive campaign of cultural courtship - largely by highlighting its celebrated dancers and classical musicians - the U.S. State Department found its own solution, not in the halls of government or the auditoriums of orchestras, but in the smoky barrooms of America's jazz clubs.

At the suggestion of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., New York's first African-American congressman, jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie formed a racially integrated big band and, in 1956, embarked on a tour of South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Thus began more than two decades of State Department-sponsored international tours by some of the biggest names in American jazz: Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Woody Herman, Oscar Peterson and Sarah Vaughan, among others.

They visited venues big and small, from concert halls to street fairs, around the globe. They went to countries both familiar and hostile.

Wherever they went, photographers followed.

Looking back from today's vantage, the images chronicle a big story in little moments: Dizzy Gillespie charming a cobra with his trumpet in Karachi, Pakistan; Benny Goodman performing for a crowd of children in Red Square; Louis Armstrong on camelback, playing his trumpet in front of the Sphinx in Egypt.

"These photographs are really splendid, and tell a lot about the history of the world and art and politics at the same time," said Barbara Koostra, director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, which is currently hosting an exhibit of photographs from those tours.

Titled "Jam Session: America's Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World," the show was originally curated by the Meridian International Center, a Washington, D.C., organization dedicated to building international ties through the arts.

The show is the latest connection in an ongoing relationship between Meridian and Missoula artists and art institutions. In 2007, Meridian organized a traveling exhibit of art entitled "Out West: The Great American Landscape," which toured several prestigious museums in China; the exhibit featured numerous Montana artists, and eventually showed at Missoula's Dana Gallery in 2008.

Prior to that, another Meridian-curated show, "Ancient Threads, Newly Woven: Recent Art from China's Silk Road," visited the Montana Museum of Art and Culture in 2005.

"They're true colleagues and have been since that (‘Ancient Threads, Newly Woven') show," said Koostra, noting that Meridian's former director of arts and cultural programs, Nancy Matthews, has since become a part-time resident of Missoula.

"When we first heard about this jazz show, it seemed like a great fit for Missoula," added Koostra.

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Indeed, though Missoula isn't exactly a haven of jazz music, this town has been an unusual nexus for jazz-related visual art.

As proof, the Meridian show - which is on exhibit at the Paxson and Meloy galleries on the UM campus - is just one part of a distributed exhibition that features a series of portraits of jazz musicians painted by the late Montana artist Henry Meloy; selections from Missoula collector Joseph S. Sample's collection of jazz-related art; and another series of portraits of jazz artists by celebrated Missoula artist James Todd.

Reached at his home earlier this week, Todd said his paintings represent a bit of deep personal history from his days growing up in Great Falls.

"At that time there was a black nightclub in town called the Ozark Club, which was quite a famous club for jazz and very unusual for Montana," said Todd. "Because the railroads went through, some of the best jazz musicians from the East and West coasts would stop there and play. ... It was the main reason I got interested in jazz music."

Because of that direct exposure to jazz music, Todd had a particular idea of what those musicians and their music were all about. Over the years, he was often frustrated by the way they were often portrayed, grinning and stiffly posed, in portraiture.

So, starting in the 1970s, Todd began making his own portraits of jazz artists, employing his techniques of wood engraving and printing.

Then, in the 1990s, Todd decided to take up a paintbrush and produce a series of acrylic paintings of some of those same legends of jazz.

"What I wanted to do was find photographs of the individuals that were much more formal, and treat them with the same kind of formal respect that would be given to, say, portraits of scientists," said Todd. "It's a kind of counter-painting to celebrity painting."

Todd recently bequeathed that series of acrylic paintings to the University of Montana's permanent collection; this exhibit marks their first showing as a group in that context.

Koostra said the combination of Todd's and Meloy's paintings, the historical photographs collected by Meridian International, and Sample's collection of jazz art make for a satisfyingly diverse and unique view of the history and cultural significance of jazz in America - and in our own backyard.

"Playing jazz is a team effort," noted Koostra, "so it made sense to put all these elements together like this."

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358 or at jnickell@missoulian.com.

 

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