Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 5, 26 July 1999

Willis Conover J A Z Z:
Willis of Oz
A profile of famed Voice of
America broadcaster Willis Conover


James Lester

Among the programs offered abroad by the radio station The Voice of America (VOA), one of the longest-running and most surprisingly successful has been Music, USA, a jazz program hosted by Willis Conover. While his name is practically unknown in the US, he has been a powerful symbol of "the American way of life" abroad.

The inspiration

The poet Joseph Brodsky, reflecting on his childhood in the Soviet Union, hit on the direct appeal that jazz has for everyone; listening to "...the richest-in-the-world bass baritone of Willis Conover," he said, "something began to happen, I remember, even to our walk: the joints of highly inhibited Russian frames harkened to 'swing.' " In 1982, when Conover was in Moscow as an MC for a group of touring American musicians, someone took his hand, kissed it, and said, "If there is a god of jazz, it is you." Another young Russian wrote touchingly to him, "You are a source of strength when I am overwhelmed by pessimism, my dear idol," and still another greeted him in Leningrad with, "Villis! You are my father!"

The depth of the need and the isolation that remarks like these convey seems overwhelmingly poignant. Starting with an ambition no larger than to share the best of an American art form with the rest of the world, by way of his jazz broadcasts for the Voice of America, Conover found himself cast as a kind of spiritual leader, especially in the "godless" world behind the Iron Curtain. Listeners regularly have said such things as, "It was almost a religious experience to listen," or, "He was like the preacher."

Of course, jazz musicians themselves aroused the same passions and were showered with the same kind of love when they appeared abroad. After a 1952 tour of Japan with a trio, the famous jazz drummer Gene Krupa exclaimed, "It was the most tremendous thing I've ever experienced!"

But musicians' visits were rare and unpredictable, whereas Conover reappeared almost every day or night of the year, like a postman bringing regular news of loved ones. His program was a lightning rod that attracted the same feelings that jazz arouses outside the United States.

In 1954, when he signed his first contract with the VOA, Willis Conover, at age 34, was a respected jazz entrepreneur in Washington, D.C. He hosted a popular jazz-oriented radio program, organized club dates and jazz concerts for musicians, and fronted a high-powered big band (although not a musician himself). He knew his subject well, and he was blessed with a singularly attractive voice, but he was strictly a local figure, not even a blip on the national scene.

In 1959, only four years later, he made his first trip to Poland where, to his great surprise, he was met at the airport by a large crowd, with reporters and photographers, a band, young girls with flowers and cheering people who waved at him from bicycles and motorbikes all the way into town. It was a reception reminiscent of those given to Louis Armstrong on his first visit to Europe in 1950, and it signaled a truly astonishing phenomenon: the mushrooming popularity of Music, USA, Conover's program on VOA. Jazz was the real guest of honor, but Conover personified it. He had become its ambassador and its messenger, and everywhere the people received the messenger joyfully.

At the height of the Cold War, Conover's audience numbered well over 20 million listeners worldwide (The New York Times once estimated 30 million), and his program was eagerly awaited from Azerbaijan to Australia.

The most abundant and dramatic stories of Conover's remarkable impact abroad come from countries in the former Soviet sphere. Poland, for example, always the least closed of the Communist societies, was one of the first to accept jazz after World War Two. In 1955, the Polish government, perhaps only bowing to the inevitable, announced genially that "the building of Socialism proceeds more lightly and more rhythmically to the accompaniment of jazz." Today, Poland's best-known musicians all assert that Music, USA, provided the foundation of their jazz education.

Conover's program had been hugely popular all over the globe, and not only with musicians. For musicians abroad, especially in the 1950s and '60s, the programs had a special importance. They were the best, and for many the only, way to learn about playing jazz - the tunes, the chord changes, the variety of possible styles.

Willis Conover and Duke Ellington

Musicians huddled around short-wave radios - even secretly in those countries where jazz and American broadcasting were still forbidden pleasures - to hear hour-long mini-seminars on the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald or Mel Torme. Before tape recorders were available, each man in a band might try to capture on paper at least two bars of a song, so that later the group could re-construct the whole piece. They needed tunes and their chord changes for their jam sessions, so essential to learning to play jazz. A former Soviet citizen, Leo Feigin, even tells of how he and his friends sold each other the names of new musicians they heard about on VOA (more capitalism than Communism in that).

Right up until his death at age 75 in 1996, Conover was still taping 16 programs a week, including six 45-minute programs of jazz and two 30-minute programs of standards, popular songs and big-band arrangements. Until a few months before his death, he also broadcast a program of jazz every night aimed specifically at Western Europe.

No good estimates exist of the size of Conover's audience in the 1990s, but it was surely much smaller than in his hey-day. The Soviet Union and the tyranny of the Communist ideology are gone, and both local and international broadcasting have concentrated on meeting the huge demand for American-style music. Conover's program became just one among many for jazz lovers around the world.

However, while most jazz stations promote sales of the latest recordings, Music, USA always concentrated on what Conover considered to be classic American jazz and pop music. In its niche, Conover's program was probably quite competitive, and it was surely unique in the care and devotion that went into its design. Up until his last broadcast, Conover was still providing an educational experience for anyone new to this rich tradition, and satisfaction to those fans still loyally devoted to this era or to Willis Conover himself.

A fragment from Vladimir Tarasov's Trio (Vilnius, Lithuania, 1998, translated from Russian by Antanas Gustys):

We made tape recordings of "Jazz Hour" with Willis Conover of Voice of America. The broadcast had been translated and broadcast on short wave. It often got through all the noise and crackling of the military jammers, which were located in every town in order to prevent us from hearing Western radio stations.

We transcribed jazz pieces from our tapes in order to learn to play them ourselves. We often thought of the pieces we missed because of interference.

It was an excellent school of improvisation. At that time, jazz was not taught anywhere and the broadcasts of Willis Conover were our best instruction manuals. They were on every evening at 11:15. I used to play with Drama Theatre or Interclub orchestras each night, so my mother recorded the show for me. When I got back home, I would listen to them. That way I didn't miss even one broadcast during those many years.

I remember transcribing a solo by Joe Morello from "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck's quartet. I would play it, and my dear mother would listen to me intently and compare it with the original.

The ingredients

Conover's first program of jazz recordings went on air on 6 January 1955. Neither Congress nor VOA expected very big things from it. Even though evidence of the passion for jazz in distant places was rampant, Congress was not easily persuaded that taxpayers would like their money to be spent on such a trivial pursuit as broadcasting jazz music to foreigners. It took the determined efforts of several influential advocates (including then Ambassador to the Soviet Union Charles E."Chip" Bohlen, who first proposed a jazz program to VOA) to sell the idea to them. Conover applied for the newly established job as host of a jazz and popular music program in 1954, not in a patriotic fervor but simply as an escape from a job as an announcer in which he was unhappy. What few grasped at this point was the tremendous appeal that American jazz and pop music would have around the world, or the skills and dedication that Willis Conover would bring to the job of presenting this music.

One of Conover's strengths was his almost hypnotically deep and sonorous voice, so distinctive that even face-to-face conversation with him almost felt like interacting with a voice rather than a person. One reporter wrote that "the word 'mellifluous' was invented for a voice like this." More than 30 years after leaving the Soviet Union, Victor Rivkin (now a computer specialist in California) expressed the reaction of millions when he commented, "His voice was also something. It still sounds in my ears." Another listener felt that his voice "bred a sense of understanding and intimacy - very low-key and relaxed, really put you at your ease, made you feel you were in good hands." Even people who understood no English, and cared nothing for jazz, liked listening to him, purely for the sound of his voice.

Its quality suffered in recent years - on account of aging, 57 years of smoking and certainly from the effects of a 1985 bout with throat cancer which practically destroyed his salivary glands - but even in 1996 it still dominated one's first impression of Conover. Down Beat magazine recently called it "solemn, almost lugubrious, eminently intelligible." Indeed, he designed his broadcast voice to be intelligible, training himself early in his career at VOA to speak slowly and deliberately and to enunciate carefully in order to make himself understood over short-wave radio and to listeners not fluent in English. (The obstacles to clarity were severe; one Polish listener told me that for a while he and his friends thought they were listening to "The Boys of America.") In 1959, VOA inaugurated a program of slow-speed simplified English broadcasts, called Special English, and Conover felt that they may have taken the idea from his broadcast speech patterns.

All this produced a voice that was unnatural for normal conversation; an English-speaking friend of mine who listened to Conover for years while overseas has referred disparagingly to his "apocalyptic tone," which he felt communicated arrogance and pretension, as if he believed himself the ultimate authority on jazz. Yet such subtleties of interpretation, right or wrong, are usually lost on non-native speakers of English, and most foreigners found in Conover's speech patterns the tones of a friendly professor or a beloved preacher. Many of his listeners wrote him to say they owed not only their understanding of jazz but also their mastery of English to his broadcasts. Conover recalled a visit to Russia when one Muscovite said to him, in appreciative tones, "Eef my Inglish eez nut zoo gude, eetz yure folt. I lurrrnn eet vrom yure progrrrm."

Conover's other great strength was his dedication (his good friend, composer Alec Wilder, once commented "he has the only Teutonic characteristic I can tolerate - persistence."). For more than 40 years, without significant interruption, he broadcast from a small, badly ventilated studio in Washington, DC

When I interviewed him not long before his death, every surface was crowded with papers, books, magazines, records, cassettes, CDs and one wonders what else. Some of the piles were higher than Conover's head, as he sat in front of the microphone, and it almost looked as though nothing had been removed in his 41-year tenancy (in fact, two more storage rooms are also full). Here, chain-smoking under a "No Smoking" placard, he designed and recorded his programs. Many of his hundreds of interviews with the jazz greats of his era (for example, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum, Bill Evans) were done here, yet there was absolutely no trace of any pretension or desire to impress in the studio. It was a workroom, pure and simple, which he called his "cluttered little dive"; he had spent thousands of hours in it since his first VOA broadcast in 1955.

When he was working - and he did little else - Conover was powerfully focused. One engineer called him "always Mr. Cool" and described how when he was MC for the Newport Jazz Festival, he was never flustered by any of the turmoil that swirled around those live events. By the same token, he never seemed to need to eat, and was likely to leave his suitcase in the motel when he checked out. In reality, he seemed to forget himself in his focus on work.

With a sense of design rare in music programming, he devoted an inordinate amount of attention to the sequence of recorded tracks he offered in each program. Every selection on each recording he acquired was analyzed for track length, tempo, mood, sequence of soloists, name of arranger and other details. He then processed all this through an aesthetic that he describes as built on a sense of fairness to all that is good in jazz, not privileging his own favorites, to arrive at the design of each program and even whole sequences of programs. In his own words: "I want to help transcend any barriers between you and the music. I visualize just one listener, an intelligent person listening carefully..."

Conover likened his preparation for taping a program to the writing of a sonnet: "You do the last two lines first and then try to find twelve good ones to lead up to that." Or to musical composition: "It's the same process a composer follows in developing a symphony. There has to be a theme, variations, movement toward a climax." Or to the culinary arts: "Maybe it's more like a recipe - if the cook knows what he's doing, what comes out of the stove should taste better than any single ingredient."

Conover was not an analytic thinker and his programs were not burdened with judgements and critiques; the design was in the selection of materials. His very conscious striving to add a second level of artistic value to his musical materials, through his own creativity, added to his enviable and deeply felt sense of meaning and value in what he did.

His attention to design did not go unappreciated by his audience overseas. Jerzy Sapieyevski - now, a composer teaching at the American University in Washington, D.C., but in the 1960s, a teen-aged Conover fan in Warsaw - says that Conover "had very good instinct for how to put programs together."

Victor Rivkin made a similar observation from a Russian perspective: "He did a great job, it was very high quality, of selecting things and making people interested. It really gave education to people there [Russia, ed], and I think that many Russian jazz musicians, not just know Willis's name, but for them it means very much. He was DOOR to jazz."

As consular officials reported on conversations with VOA listeners, and as listeners became refugees and exiles, it slowly became apparent to VOA that a lot more than the simple elan or fun of jazz was coming across in Conover's programs.

The illusion

For better or worse, jazz has always had a strong association, even in America, with freedom. Not everyone saw that freedom in the same way, however. Many embraced jazz as liberating, as a kind of yes-saying against the no-saying of a Puritanical national conscience; when the young Eddie Condon first heard King Oliver's band he reported that, "the music poured into us like daylight down a dark hole."

Many others condemned it as primitive, a step backward culturally. It was the right music for the freedom-seeking flappers in the 20s and the lawless gangsters of the 30s (as two killers for hire once told ragtime pianist Jimmy Durante, "Jimmy, you're the only real beauty we got in our lives."). It helped people to pick themselves off the floor after the 1929 market crash, and it uplifted spirits and helped people get through the Great Depression that followed. But it also aroused fears for "family values" and fears of a triumph of Id over Ego. It opened up a new field for the expression of individuality - through both the playing and the dances that arose in response to it - but in the eyes and ears of many, it also threatened civilized and disciplined living. It was an authentic, new musical form pulsating with life, and it was banned in many venues.

Jazz survived its challenges in America, as we know, and gradually became "America's classical music," as some (including Willis Conover) like to say. Much the same story has played itself out dramatically in other parts of the world. Early jazz was embraced by Europeans in the 1920s, but the rising dictatorships in Germany and Italy found its vitality, its encouragement of individuality and spontaneity, a threatening force and forbade their people to play it or even to listen to it. It was banned in Japan during World War II, presumably because it was so quintessentially Weestern.

Communist governments in the Soviet Union and in its satellite countries took the same line, and jazz, like capitalism, was often ruled forbidden territory (after World War Two, Stalin even identified the saxophone as the worst devil in music and confiscated all of them he could find - a not entirely unjustified move, some might say). As recently as the 1980s, Arturo Sandoval (now a prominent jazz artist in the U.S. and a multiple Grammy award nominee) was jailed for four months in Cuba, for listening to Willis Conover on VOA, "the voice of the enemy."

Efforts to suppress jazz were just a small part of a much more comprehensive attempt to destroy the aura of promise, prosperity and opportunity that the United States had acquired- around the world, but perhaps especially in Eastern Europe - even as far back as the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Both Eastern and Western officials, however, grossly underestimated the satisfactions to be had from jazz, and efforts to suppress it in Europe and elsewhere were successful only in the way that Prohibition in America was successful - they produced a terrific underground demand for the denied pleasure, and throngs of people were willing to go to remarkable lengths to obtain it. Secret clubs were formed and met in secret rooms, black market recordings were circulated, clandestine radio stations were set up. Jazz music came to represent a colorful and spontaneous - and especially an American - way of life that contrasted sharply and attractively with the grayness and restraint of life in many countries. And for a long time Conover had a near-monopoly on it.

Leo Feigin told a National Public Radio interviewer that, "Willis Conover was broadcasting the kind of music which personified for us someone else's freedom. We couldn't be free, but this music was perceived by us [as] played by someone who is free, because improvisation is the only art form which cannot be censored, by definition."

Armenian-born pianist David Azarian told Down Beat magazine: "When you are in a jail, that music makes you wonder what kind of country produced it. I tell you, Conover was America's best weapon to destroy socialism and Communism."

Victor Rivkin remarked: "For many of us it was more than just music. It was more, because it was our way to get attracted to some Western values. I think he is one of people who is responsible for breaking up the Soviet Union. Really!"

When Johnny Radacanu, a Romanian musician, was interviewed on a visit to America in 1987, he talked about how Conover had "taught people in the Communist bloc about George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, about the Chicago school and the New Orleans school, about King Oliver, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the music called bebop, and about the blues," and then, trying to sum up, he said: "For us, he was an illusion." Radacanu probably meant "legend," the word many others have found to express Conover's impact, but he may inadvertently have found a better word than he realized.

Conover's compelling and persuasive voice and style, combined with dollops of that rich potpourri from King Oliver to Gillespie, irresistibly stirred up images - and beyond that, hopes and wishes - of life in a free country, in people who had almost no way to test the reality of the "illusion."

Maybe illusion is too strong a word. American movies have certainly encouraged misleading and illusory fantasies about American life, but jazz music does mange to communicate something powerful about America's origins and its context, even if it is only part of the truth. Americans take it so much for granted that it must be nearly impossible for them to hear it in the way that a Hungarian living under Soviet rule, or a Cuban, or a Phillipino might. Conover had his own way of putting this. He liked to say that jazz for Americans is like "a rose-colored object seen through rose-colored glasses"- almost invisible.

One could argue that this aphorism should be turned around, that jazz has often led foreigners to see the United States through rose-colored glasses, but Conover did have a point. Once, on a long night-time drive, I tried to imagine myself a dissatisfied Soviet citizen, and I found that jazz on the radio came across to me with a freshness and power - and, yes, a sense of freedom - that went way beyond anything I had felt about it since my teens.

The individual

Photos of Conover taken early in his career (usually with stars like Ellington, Armstrong, Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Fred Astaire or Bing Crosby) make it clear that he was once tall and cleanly good-looking, even in his professorial wide-rimmed glasses. But by 1996, radiation treatment had left him gaunt and slow moving and able to speak only with a special effort and considerable discomfort. Seeing him like this, I felt a shock on hearing the last lines from a sonnet he wrote before he was 20: "I looked within and knew all hope had flown, those empty eyes, that wasted face, my own." Lines such as these, contrasted with the larger-than-life image he has projected so successfully, made me wonder: what kind of person is Willis Conover?

By his own description, he was shy as a youth, unathletic and one of those likely to be taunted as a sissy by his peers, given to lots of reading and drawing, and especially attracted to science fiction.

Some of this reclusiveness can be chalked up to his father's military career and to the family's enforced mobility; by the time he had finished high school, he claims to have attended 25 schools. As a teenager constantly being uprooted, he was able to cope by exploiting a talent for writing. He developed an active correspondence with others interested in science fiction, eventually starting the Science Fiction Correspondence Club, which had its own magazine.

In a 1994 interview with Dr. Billy Taylor, he commented that in those early years, he knew more people through his correspondence than he knew face-to-face in his own neighborhood. This pattern is patently similar to his later career in broadcasting: controlled contact - through a medium that gave him time to think out and prepare his own participation and protected him from an overload of incoming stimulation. To use a metaphor from music, he was by nature much more like an arranger than like an improvising performer. And just like an arranger - working in his private, patient and even meticulous way - he was able to present the more spontaneous improvisers to the public.

Besides being a reserved and private person, he was humble - almost to excess (and even to the degree that some think his humility was an affectation that hid narcissism and imperiousness). "The musicians are the only experts," he said, and he did seem as proud of the autographs written to him personally as any young jazz fan might be ("Teddy Wilson in his own handwriting...!").

Even in his last year, he still appeared to be genuinely amazed at all that had happened to him: all the stars who had called him "friend" (above all, his idol Duke Ellington), the Presidents he had known personally (he had arranged and narrated 40 special concerts at the White House), the awards he had received (for example, the Recording Industry Association of America Award for Contributions to American Culture, and in 1995, the Downbeat Lifetime Achievement Award ). His tone of humility was becoming, and one can marvel at the magic of broadcasting, through which it was turned into a voice of serene authority that came out at the receiving radio set.

When he described playing pun word-games with Gerry Mulligan or Paul Desmond, he sounded relaxed and witty (in a controlled kind of way), and one could understand why Alec Wilder seemed to like him very much. He was genuinely proud of his way with words. He loved to write and recite limericks, and usually had several written on cards in his shirt pocket. One former VOA employee told me: "He drove me crazy with those limericks!" They often expressed unfettered, almost angry, judgements of the kind that never colored his scrupulously objective commentary on the air. Equally often they revealed a sense of humor that one might never have guessed at from his radio personality, as for example, "Just a Kosher Walk With Thee": "Though I quiver to songs tabernacular/For the singing is often spectacular/And I thrill at the sights of rabbinical rites/I'm unable to hack the vernacular." Such playfulness is never allowed out when the microphone is on.

He also wrote poetry and song lyrics, and they often contained a sad, wistful, dreamy theme: "Middle of the night, middle of the dream, Please let things be what they seem... Goodbye faces, filling spaces, Goodbye, place." Or the words he wrote to a melody by Gerry Mulligan: "What does it mean? How much is real? ... I lost a world where I belong..." When I asked whether the mood of such lyrics really reflects his own mood when he wrote them, he disappeared into his privacy, commenting only, "They just come out that way." His early fascination with science fiction and "fantasy" fiction no doubt filled his mind with Poe-like images, but they took hold like seeds in fertile ground. Those "faces, filling spaces" are haunting with their suggestion of emotional remoteness, a quality very different from the "tremendous charm" he has always been able to project in his broadcast hours.

The ultimate paradox concerning Willis Conover is how widely and how well the voice of this enigmatic, inward, and possibly lonely person came to represent the big, open, dynamic, creative free-for-all that is America. In fact, it is hard not to think of Conover as the Wizard of Oz: a gentle, reticent sort of person hidden behind a curtain, projecting through the turning of dials and the pushing of levers a powerful image, rather different from himself, that ends up changing lives. He seems to have been the perfect person for the job.

James Lester, 26 July 1999

Willis Conover died Friday, 17 May 1996. His ashes are interred in the Columbarium of the Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, DC Click here to read his obituary from The New York Times

The author, a retired clinical psychologist, is a freelance musician, writer, photographer, and author of Too Marvelous for Words (Oxford UP), a biography of Art Tatum.

Photos (of Conover and Conover and Ellington) are VOA photos from the Willis Conover estate at North Texas University - courtesy of Terence Ripmaster, who is writing a book on Willis Conover.

Conover on the Web

Compiled comments that appeared on newsgroups shortly after his death.

AMetronome interview that Conover conducted with Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.

A decidedly different view: Black Music: Cold War "Secret Weapon"

This article appears courtesy of the Jazz Institute of Chicago.
Copyright 1999 Jazz Institute of Chicago. All rights reserved.

 

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