Swinging With Freedom: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty And The Power Of Jazz

Friday, May 10, 2019
Louis Armstrong visits with Radio Liberty reporters
Image credit: 
RFE/RL Corporate Records, Hoover Institution Archives

In 1950, the spread of communism was a serious threat. North Korea invaded South Korea, the Soviet Union was aggressively arming submarines with nuclear weapons, and the Iron Curtain was firmly in place under Joseph Stalin. As Soviet rule tightened around Eastern Europe, the Eastern Bloc was cut off from the West, with freedom of the press and freedom of speech sharply curtailed. Even Western music was censored. 

“Radio Free Europe’s purpose [is to] contribute to the liberation of the nations imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain by sustaining their morale and stimulating in them a spirit of non-cooperation with the Soviet-dominated regimes by which they are, for the time being, ruled.” —RFE Policy Manual, November 1951

Founded in 1950 and secretly funded by the CIA, Radio Free Europe (RFE) began broadcasting from Munich to Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia in 1951. RFE broadcast world news, music, and educational programs that otherwise would never have reached people under the censorship laws. Soon RFE was broadcasting to Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, (Radio Liberty, founded in 1951, broadcast to the Soviet Union). Their goal was to provide free press to countries where the media was controlled and suppressed by totalitarian governments.

Despite being the victim of radio jamming, terrorist attacks, and political opposition, Radio Free Europe broadcast the free press to the people throughout the Cold War, and it continues to do so today in countries without freedom of the press. In 1999, the Hoover Institution worked directly with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to acquire an extensive collection of their Cold War–era broadcasts and corporate materials. A unique part of this collection are the materials from “Jazz Ambassadors” program created by the US State Department in 1956. The State Department decided to send a group of popular American jazz musicians to countries in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to play Western jazz music and, by extension, to present a visual challenge to Soviet propaganda about racial tensions in the United States. Some of the musicians included Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Phil Woods, Oscar Peterson, and Benny Goodman.

Western music, and jazz in particular, became a popular form of resistance against the Communist regimes, especially in Eastern Europe. The fluidity and creativity of improvisational jazz and its Western origins went against Soviet ideology: with its solos highlighting individual musicians and improvisational techniques, jazz served as a metaphor for the freedom and autonomy afforded by democratic societies like the United States. This tour of musicians popularized jazz in Eastern Europe in the sixties and seventies, before the governments began restricting it again. While some regimes tolerated it more than others, jazz music was taken off the television until the fall of the Soviet Union, and during the Cold War remained popular in select jazz clubs in cities like Prague, where people would play and gather to listen to the music even in the face of persecution.

“We are very excited by the possibilities this archive transfer offers to researchers and others interested in the Radios [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty] and their work in support of US foreign policy goals. We feel that the Hoover Institution, with its longstanding interest in the peoples and countries of our broadcast region, is uniquely well suited as a home for our broadcast and corporate archives.” —Thomas A. Dine, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

In 1999, the Hoover Institution Library & archives worked with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to acquire an extensive collection of records and broadcasts. The bulk of the records cover the period from the creation of the parent organization, The National Committee for a Free Europe, in 1949, until June 1995, when the headquarters of Radio Free Europe (RFE)/Radio Liberty (RL) were moved from Munich to Prague. The broadcast archives consist of some 61,000 reels of broadcast tapes, 7.5 million pages of broadcast transcripts, and thousands of additional documents generated by the various broadcast services of RFE and RL. The corporate records include the administrative files of the offices of the president, executive vice president, RFE director, and RL director, the New York Program Center, the Public Affairs Office, and other operating units. Included in this collection are pictures of visits by jazz musicians, including those mentioned above as well as Count Basie and Nat King Cole. This collection also includes radio broadcasts of Louis Armstrong on the Czechoslovak Service of Radio Free Europe, Dizzy Gillespie on Bulgarian Radio Free Europe, and Phil Woods on the Russian Service of Radio Liberty (music starts at 25:22).

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