A Life-Altering Event: The 1966 IU Jazz Ensemble U.S. State Department Near East & South Asia Cultural Exchange Concert Tour

By Craig Andrews (B.M. 1969)

1966 Tour--IU Auditorium
On January 29, 1966, the Indiana University Jazz Ensemble – known as the “first” of three jazz ensembles in the School of Music at that time – departed the U.S. on a 109-day tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department.  This 19-member jazz band led by Jerry Coker – as well as a sextet comprised of ensemble members – played over 80 concerts in Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), India, East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh), West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan), Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Greece and Cyprus.

How did this happen?  In the Spring of 1965, the I.U. Jazz Ensemble (the “first band”) won the Notre Dame Intercollegiate Jazz Festival.  It was there that the group came to the attention of State Department officials, who began discussing with the university the possibility of the I.U. Jazz Ensemble touring the Near East and South Asia to bring American jazz to that part of the world.  By the time the 1965 Fall semester began, plans had been formulated and confirmed and The Tour was set to begin the following January.

Jerry Coker soloing

Jerry Coker soloing – Lahore, Pakistan

Members of the ensemble’s saxophone section were Jerry Greene and Carl Atkins on alto, Gary Campbell and Pat Mancino on tenor, and Whit Sidener on baritone.  The trumpet section was Larry Wiseman, Chris Gallaher, Randy Brecker and myself.  Paul Navarro and Mark Williamson played French horn.  The trombones were Brian Martz and Andrew McDonald with Arthur Moore on bass trombone.  Don Harry played tuba.  The pianist in the big band was Gary Smart, while David Lahm was the pianist in the sextet.  Brent McKesson played bass, and Stan Gage was the drummer.

Clyde Dunn, a veteran State Department foreign service officer with long experience in the Middle East, was the ensemble’s traveling escort officer.  25-year-old trumpet player and arranger Chris Gallaher, who had just completed his Master of Music degree at I.U., managed the individual ensemble members’ “per diem” travel expenses paid by the State Department and issued by the U.S. embassy in each country.  He also maintained records of everyone’s “per diem” account.  This time-consuming but unheralded task kept Chris very busy throughout The Tour as we moved from country to country, each with its own unique currency: from rupees to rials to dinars to pounds to drachmas and beyond.

It’s impossible to provide a truly comprehensive description of The Tour and what it meant to those of us who participated in it.  However, suffice to say, from our January 29th departure until our final concert in Nicosia, Cyprus on May 17th, we had truly singular experiences, some that were extremely positive and some that were quite the opposite.  Many of our experiences are difficult to describe and can only be fully understood and appreciated by those of us who were there.  However, here’s an abridged version of some of The Tour’s events to provide readers just a “taste” of it.

The Band in Jerusalem

The IU Jazz Ensemble at Church of the Holy Sepulchre in  Jerusalem

We played American big band jazz in the open air at the edge of jungles in Sri Lanka with elephants hanging around the periphery.  We also played by the light of Coleman lanterns when the electrical system failed during a concert in Sri Lanka.  We took an eight-hour trip in an ancient bus across half of southern India with no food or water, then got into our uniforms and played jazz for a large and appreciative audience in Bangalore.  We walked in the streets of what were then called Calcutta and Bombay.  From inside our upscale hotel in Calcutta, we listened to food riots outside.  We landed in a propeller-driven aircraft in Pakistan in a dust storm so severe we could not see the tarmac of the airfield until we descended the ladder and stepped on concrete.  We played jazz in Pakistani concert halls that were segregated by gender with curtains.  We visited the Khyber Pass.  We played American jazz on Iranian television. We played a very well-received concert at the University of Tehran, something that would be impossible today.  We toured the ruins of Persepolis, the palace of the ancient Persian kings Xerxes, Darius and Artaxerxes.  To travel from Abadan, Iran to Basra, Iraq, we rode British embassy boats up the Shatt al Arab River which separates those two countries.  We visited the ruins of Ctesiphon, one of the great cities of ancient Mesopotamia, and played jazz on a Saturday evening at the University of Baghdad.

Getting off the plane at Baghdad

Getting off the plane at Baghdad

The sextet had to terminate a concert at the University of Damascus when protests against Israel and the Vietnam War by the student audience became violent. We rode camels around the Pyramids at Giza and spent Easter riding a bus down the Nile Valley from Alexandria to Cairo.  We saw Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Sphinx, the ancient Roman temples at Baalbeck and the Acropolis.  Some of us swam in the Mediterranean.  We played separate concerts in the Turkish and Greek sectors of Cyprus and shared a hotel with United Nations soldiers trying to maintain relative peace between those two warring ethnic groups.   Through it all, we represented the Indiana University School of Music.

Randy Brecker soloing

Randy Brecker soloing

From a musical perspective, I’m convinced the 1965/1966 I.U. Jazz Ensemble represented a unique confluence of a number of uncommon factors.   First, Jerry Coker was a wonderful leader, instrumentalist and arranger who had a true teaching heart.  Jerry loved the band and we knew it.  Second, our repertoire was almost entirely written and/or arranged by Coker and band members Whit Sidener and Chris Gallaher.  Third, we had a great lead trumpet player, the late Larry Wiseman, and an awesome drummer, the late Stan Gage.  Fourth, the inclusion in the brass section of two French horns and tuba, and the availability of flute, clarinet and oboe in the woodwind section, gave the band a unique tonal palette.  Lastly, the band’s major soloists – Randy Brecker, Jerry Greene, Gary Campbell, and Whit Sidener – were truly exceptional.

An aspect of The Tour that still resonates with ensemble members today is the constant focus in the current news on the countries we visited.  Syria is one example.  Something appears in the news virtually every day regarding that terribly unfortunate country.  We visited both Damascus and Aleppo, but the big band never played a concert in Syria due to political turmoil.  Events occurring in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Egypt are also in the news almost daily.  So, for the surviving members of the 1965/1966 I.U. Jazz Ensemble, our private thoughts can never seem to drift very far from the life-changing experiences we shared fifty years ago.

Click here to see more photos in the 1966 Near East and South Asia Tour Photo Gallery.

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