WILLIS CONOVER: BROADCASTING JAZZ TO THE WORLD



“Willis Conover: Broadcasting Jazz To The World” (iUniverse) by Terence M. Ripmaster

Book Review


“If I had to list the five people most responsible for the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Willis Conover would be on the top of the list.”
Leo Feigin, Russian record company president

Conover was only a disc jockey. He didn’t even play hits. He was your ultimate right man in the right place at the right time. “Willis Conover has done more for America than all its ambassadors combined,” says Irena Makowicz, wife of Polish jazz pianist Adam Makowicz.

Soviet censors considered jazz to be decadent Judeo/Negroid drug-oriented music of the failing Capitalistic system. The German national Socialists had thought much the same way. Trumpeter Adolph “Eddie” Rosner, later sent to the Gulag, said it was hard to be a jazz musician in Germany in the 1930s, even if your name was Adolph.

Willis Conover picked it up from there. A nice looking middle age, middle class man from a navy family in Cambridge, Maryland, with a good voice who showed up on time and who people liked, Conover never mentioned politics. It was all music

His program, “Music USA” broadcast on the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe from 1955 until his death in 1996 was not heard in the US. The VOA was an arm of the Office of War Information, a federal agency not permitted to broadcast in America.

William Gavin, ex-assistant Director of Public Affairs for the United States Information Agency and Richard Nixon’s lawyer Leonard Garment tried to get Conover a US Medal of Freedom in 1992, but George HW Bush wouldn’t go for it. Even Bill Clinton wouldn’t go for it. However when President Lech Walesa of Poland invited Conover to a State dinner at his Embassy, the Polish Ambassador told him: ”In my country, you are a legend.”

Conover once played a word game with Quincy Jones during an interview. When Conover said ‘jazz,” Jones came right back with “Charlie Parker.” Then Jones said; “At this moment, there are thousands and thousands of people around the world, who, when they hear the word ‘jazz,’ immediately respond: ‘Willis Conover.’

He was often called “America’s Jazz Ambassador.” As much as his programming, which was intelligent and eclectic, it was his deep, warm, slow, knowledgeable speaking voice that seduced several generations of jazz musicians around the world - from Cuba, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Armenia, Scandinavia and points east. You could hear more jazz on “Music USA” than on AM radio in the entire US.

When European musicians visited America they couldn’t believe how little jazz meant in the country of its birth. Or that nobody had ever heard of Willis Conover. In Czechoslovakia,” says an accordion player named Jan Zappner: “Jazz has always been part of the music scene. Private radios were not allowed, so, in the army, every night at ten o’clock, I sneaked through the toilet window into the communications building, where there was a shortwave radio on which I tuned in the Voice of America.

“There it was, ‘The A Train,’ and the great voice of Willis Conover. I will never forget that feeling of sweet conspiracy While the barracks, the country, indeed, the whole socialist camp was asleep, I, Private Zappner, was in contact with Washington and found out that over the trenches of the Cold War there was normal life, with great music with people who didn’t want their lips and fingers busted up in any war. I knew I couldn’t shoot Willis. In fact I wrote to him, and he sent me the program of VOA and signed it himself. Since then, the political officer treated me with caution and respect. After all, I was obviously in contact with Washington, and what if the situation changed one day?”

This book is full of such moving little human ironies. Compliments from friendly ex-Soviet Ambassadors, for example. The stories are told without pretension, as if we should take it for granted that jazz was a major influence on entire competing power blocks, and that ordinary people in them were friendly with each other.

In 1999, the journalist James Lester wrote an article in the Journal of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, which ended: “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.”

The idea to promote American culture came from the State Department. It was picked up by an alliance of musicians, civil rights advocates, entrepreneurs and critics, who felt that radio broadcasts by Leonard Feather and Willis Conover would help to lay the groundwork for a compelling power play. It eventually became fairly well known that the US in fact came to export its culture as a major arm in the Cold War. The message was that it was just more fun to live in America.

This was certainly one of the better ideas to come out of any government bureaucracy. American jazz critics working behind the Iron Curtain were more or less assumed to be CIA agents. Although Marie Ciliberti, Conover’s long time associate and friend said: “Willis was very anti-communist and made no bones about it. He “simply kept quiet about that.” “Villis” as he was known, eventually played a major part in what came to be called a pipeline to freedom.”

In notes for an autobiography that was never finished, he wrote that although bureaucracies were all basically anti-human, they were worse in the USSR. However, the things that are demonstrably wrong about their system are all also present here in our own system – whenever dossiers are built by an organization or a computer, whenever vicious little gossip takes joy in tearing down somebody’s reputation, whenever petty bureaucrats take joy in finding reasons why something can’t be done.”

He was not in the least political, in public anyway. Only the music was political. It was clearly democratic music.

Czech bassist George Mraz, who now lives in the US, “listened to Willis Conover in the 1960s. I got a tape recorder and began to record the Voice of America programs. I was always looking forwarded to this hour. Willis played Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Monk, all the best stuff

In a letter to Ripmaaster, Mraz recalled: “Willis came to Prague in 1964…I remember when he and his wife were introduced; there was an extremely long standing ovation I had a chance to meet him after the concert. He was the MC and he pronounced all the Czeck names perfectly.

“The next time I saw him was in 1976 in Warsaw, where I was playing with Stan Getz. Willis seemed somewhat worried that I was there and gave me some contact numbers at the US Embassy in case of trouble.”

There was no trouble.