Willis Conover, 1920-1996: He Brought Jazz, 'the Music of Freedom,' to the World

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I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Barbara Klein with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today, we tell about Willis Conover. His voice is one of the most famous in the world. Conover's Voice of America radio program on jazz was one of the most popular and influential shows in broadcasting history.

Willis Conover was not a jazz musician. However, many people believe that he did more to spread the sound of jazz than any person in music history. For more than forty years Conover brought jazz to people around the world on his VOA music programs. An estimated one hundred million people heard his programs. He helped make jazz music an international language.

Willis Conover was born in Buffalo, New York, in nineteen twenty. Because his father was in the military, his family moved around a great deal.  When Willis was in high school, he played the part of a radio announcer in a school play. People told him that he sounded like a real radio announcer. Later, he competed in a spelling competition that was broadcast on radio. The radio announcer told Willis that he should work in radio. Willis had a deep and rich voice that was perfect for broadcasting.

At first, Conover worked for small radio stations in the state of Maryland. He served in the military during World War Two. Because of his experience talking to people on radio, Conover was not sent away to fight. He was needed to interview new soldiers at Fort Meade, Maryland. After the war, he continued to work for commercial radio stations.

Willis Conover heard a lot of jazz music during the nineteen forties in Washington, D.C. This city was the center of a very important jazz movement.  Willis Conover knew many of the jazz musicians in both Washington and New York City. He helped organize many concerts. He also helped stop racial separation in the places where music was played at night. At this time, mainly white people went to music clubs even though many of the musicians were black. Conover created musical events where people of all races were welcome.

Willis Conover wanted to be able to play more of the jazz music that he loved on his radio show. He did not like the restrictions of commercial radio. When he heard that the Voice of America wanted to start a jazz music program, Conover knew that he had found a perfect job. He had full freedom to play all kinds of jazz music on his show which began in nineteen fifty-five.

Willis Conover once said that jazz is the music of freedom. He said that with jazz people can express their lives through music. And that the music helps people to stand up a little straighter.

Many people think that Willis Conover had great political influence during the period after World War Two known as the Cold War. This was a time of increased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the nineteen sixties and seventies, listening to the VOA was not allowed in many Eastern European countries.  Also, the governments of these countries thought jazz was dangerous and subversive.  But the people in these countries loved jazz. Many people became jazz musicians themselves. They first learned how to play this music by listening to Willis Conover's "Music USA" program.

During the many years his program was broadcast, Conover presented his expert knowledge about jazz. He interviewed great jazz musicians such as Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He played the best music from the most current musicians. Here is a recording of Conover talking about the way jazz music changes over time.

CONOVER: "Jazz is a living music and anything that is alive grows and changes, just as we grow and change.  So it changes all the time. But it's based on our memories and our cultural heritage and how we feel about it. And that changes. So it has its roots in the music of a half-century ago and music that came along since then.  It depends on what the musician has heard and what the musician wants to do with it once he or she has heard it.  It changes because it's living music."

Willis Conover not only talked about jazz music on his program. He sometimes wrote the music and the words to jazz songs. He usually wrote sad love songs. His many musician friends put the words to music. Here he is voicing the words to a song he wrote in the nineteen sixties. The music is written and played by the great jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd.

Very few Americans knew about Willis Conover's program.  Voice of America programs are not permitted to be broadcast in the United States.  But he was very famous in the rest of the world. Audiences loved his program. When he traveled to Poland in nineteen fifty-nine, he saw hundreds of people gathered near his plane. People held cameras and flowers. They were cheering and smiling. Conover thought that they were waiting for a famous person to arrive. Then he saw a large sign that said, "Welcome to Poland, Mr. Conover." The crowds were there to see him.

Willis Conover also worked to spread jazz in the United States. He was the announcer for many famous jazz festivals and concerts in America.

He presented more than thirty concerts at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. He even produced the White House concert in celebration of jazz musician Duke Ellington's seventieth birthday in nineteen sixty-nine.

Willis Conover once said that Louis Armstrong was the heart of jazz, Duke Ellington was the soul and Count Basie was its happy dancing feet. Here is part of a nineteen seventy-three interview by Willis Conover with the great Duke Ellington. This was one of the last times Conover talked to him. Duke Ellington died the next year. In this interview, these great men express their thanks to one another.

CONOVER: "Our thanks for so many things, more than I would have time to elucidate, to -- I should have prepared this and I didn't – to the man who has brought America to the world by way of its music as created and shaped by him, Duke Ellington."

ELLINGTON: "Thank you very much, Willis, that's awfully gracious of you and as usual you are the gracious host and it's been a complete joy being here with you and of course it's been instructive as well. And as we say "good evening" or "good morning," whatever time this is, why, please tell all of your lovely listeners that we do love them madly."

In his jazz programs Willis Conover played many kinds of jazz. He played songs he liked and songs he did not like. However, he liked to play the musicians he liked best, such as Duke Ellington, often. Here is the song "Chelsea Bridge" from his favorite saxophonist musician Ben Webster. Conover once said that nothing could quite match this song.

Willis Conover died in nineteen ninety-six after a long struggle with cancer. He was seventy-five. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C. Though his programs are no longer broadcast, his influence is very much alive. Jazz music owes a great deal to this special man.

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Bob Doughty.  Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.