When my jazz quartet and I drove to New York City to audition for a U.S. Department of State Jazz Ambassadors tour, we had no idea of what to expect. Expecting the unexpected turned out to be one of the best strategies, not only for the audition, but for a successful international exchange experience we were later selected to do. We were to travel to parts of the world that none of us had ever seen. What would the people think of our music? How westernized have the countries we would be visiting become?
One more question stuck in my mind that I knew would not concern the other three guys: How would a non-western crowd react to me?
As the singer, saxophonist and spokesman for the group, I am out there in the front of the stage. While used to the role, having been in the music business for a number of years, I am only five feet tall with relatively short limbs and a noticeable wobble when I walk. With American audiences I count on my attempts at witty repartee and an audience’s inherent understanding of our material to carry me over any bumps in the road.
Moreover, logistically, I had to figure a way to travel light. I have pseudo-achondroplasia, a mild form of dwarfism that makes walking long distances, carrying heavy equipment, or standing for long periods quite difficult. I wanted to help get my equipment in and out of airports and performance venues, so I purchased an especially small public announcement unit, compact enough to carry like a heavy suitcase.
Thankfully, the program administrators at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts took great care to arrange what we needed when possible. In cities where we performed, U.S. embassy or consular officials met us and provided transportation and often, extra helping hands. As a result, for five weeks I got around easily as we traveled to South Korea, Cambodia, Russia, and then detoured to Mexico before finally returning to the United States.
As for my other questions, it surprised me to discover the extent to which American popular music styles of all types have been integrated into the cultures of most countries we visited. Our audiences – generally very gracious and inquisitive – flattered us with autograph and picture requests, something quite unaccustomed for us. They especially appreciated hearing American musicians perform American music. Many local musicians approached us with questions about performing blues, jazz or rock styles.
"We almost instantly established common ground with anyone wanting to speak with us about the universal language of music. We could jam with many of our newfound friends, even when we couldn’t hold a literal conversation due to our different spoken languages."
One city in which we performed was Vladivostok. The city perches on Russia’s Pacific coast isolated from most Western European or American musical acts. At the end of our performances there, audiences showered us with flowers and gave us vodka, souvenirs, and even a Ukrainian accordion called a garmoshka. We found many wonderful friends in this faraway place.
During our other exchange visits, locals gave us an invaluable and real look at places, the people, and their everyday life, so we didn’t simply get a tourist’s point of view. We too shared our culture in workshops we gave to university students and school children. The musical exchange worked both ways. We added jazz elements to Khmer and Muslim songs in Phnom Penh, a Russian folk song in Vladivostok, and learned songs from music students in Guadalajara.
I experienced the sights, sounds and tastes of cultures that I may never have had an opportunity to visit otherwise. This first trip is already leading to other opportunities for more travel abroad, as I returned to a jazz festival in the now familiar Vladivostok. And on top of it all, I found places where I never felt I stood out because of my size or physical limitations. I embraced the unknown – and those I met there carried me over the bumps in the road.
American Music Abroad is a cultural program supported by the U.S. Department of State Office of Citizen Exchanges. The Cultural Programs Division brings the rich artistic traditions of the United States to foreign audiences through cultural exchange programs in visual arts, performing arts, film, arts education, arts management and cultural studies. John currently serves on the Jazz and Popular Music faculty at both the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University.