Voice of America jazz specialist Willis Conover was heard by millions in Russia, Eastern Europe, the Far East, Africa, and the Caribbean during four decades from the mid-1950s until his death in 1996.
Surveys at the peak of his career estimated Willis’ audience at 30,000,000 — remarkable for a music show host in the era of sometimes scratchy and often-jammed shortwave and for a largely unknown broadcast emcee in the U.S.
On August 3, 2020, the First Monday Forum organized by the Public Diplomacy Association of America (PDAA), the Public Diplomacy Council (PDC), and the University of Southern California (USC), recalled vividly the career and voice of Willis Conover.
At least a dozen colleagues who worked with Willis described in detail his vital impact and morale-raising broadcasts to listeners behind the Iron Curtain, in sub-Sahara Africa, and even in Cuba.
The forum on ZOOM chaired by former VOA Director Geoff Cowan of USC brought together at least a dozen experts and former Willis colleagues at the Voice. Mr. Cowan, the Voice’s 22nd director from 1994 to 1996, said the roundtable “is more than a tribute… it summarizes the impact of Willis Conover on countless followers yearning for freedom and brighter dreams during the Cold War.”
TESTIMONIES OF LISTENERS AND WILLIS’ COLLEAGUES
—As public diplomacy scholar and USC professor Dr. Nick Cull put it: “Audiences came to VOA for jazz, and they stayed for the news.”
—Arturo Sandoval of Cuba added from Havana: “The music of Willis was the only way we could listen to jazz… I listened every day at 3:30 p.m. I finally got to meet Willis in person during a trip to Poland and told him: ‘I really appreciate what you’re doing to protect the legacy of our kind of music. That legacy was, and is, an international language, the voice of freedom’.”
—VOA producer Rick Barnes: “The sound of the trumpet … it speaks to the heart.”
—Ed Gursky, a producer and my longtime friend and key associate at VOA program reviews late last century:
“In addition to his contribution to international diplomacy, Willis Conover was a pioneer in making music at VOA tell America’s story to the world. Music became part of the Voice’s regional language services with programs like Leo Sarkisian’s “Music Time in Africa,” Roger Guy Folly’s “Listener Request” on French to Africa, and George Collinet’s “Good Morning Africa” as well as English to Africa’s “Hip Hop Connection.”
Willis’s theme music was Duke Ellington’s “Take The ‘A’ Train”. Early in President Nixon’s first term, he suggested that the president give Duke Ellington a 70th birthday party at the White House. The President welcomed the idea, and Willis organized an all-star team of famed jazz players to join them there for the Duke’s presidential award in April 1969.
The Wall Street Journal’s Doug Ramsey in July 2015 reported that “countless musicians from former Iron Curtain countries have credited Willis with attracting them to jazz, among them Czech bassists George Mraz and Miroslav Vitous, Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, and Russian trumpeter Valery Ponomarev.
“On a Conover Facebook Page established in 2010,” Ponomarev added, “Conover had done as much for jazz as Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie”.
Willis Conover’s New York Times obituary said: “In the long struggle between the forces of communism and democracy, Mr. Conover who went on the air in 1955… proved more effective than a fleet of B-29s”.
As the Wall Street Journal’s Doug Ramsey concluded: “The Voice of America broadcast most of the early Newport Jazz Festivals, with Willis Conover as master of ceremonies for most of them. Willis produced concerts at other festivals, notably the 1969 New Orleans Jazz Festival, remembered as the greatest of all such events.”
As Scott Simon summed up in a column in 2015:
“Imagine what it was like (during the Cold War) to sit in a dark of a hushed room in Prague, Moscow or Warsaw in the 1960s, fiddle with the dial of shortwave radio, slide over crackles, pops, and jamming, to finally find the notes of “The A Train,” and a rich baritone intoning slowly through the static: ‘Good evening! This is Willis Conover, with Music USA’.
“He played the Count, the Duke, and Satchmo, Dizzy, Miss Sarah Vaughan and Charlie Parker. I remember asking East Berliners in the early 1990s: ‘Where did you learn such excellent English? They didn’t say the name of any movie, rock star or statesman, just ‘Willis Conover’.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More