SOUNDS AND WAVES OF FREEDOM. JAZZ HOUR’ WITH WILLS CONOVER

In the mid-50s, something new and important appeared in the lives of our generation, a certain relief in the information vacuum. It was the Music USA program and its host Willis Conover. This man’s name gradually became the symbol of American jazz and of America in general for millions of radio listeners in many parts of Europe and Asia. His program gained a special meaning for those who lived on this side of the Iron Curtain and was stripped of the opportunity to find out about Western culture. For us, the people of the Soviet Union, who loved jazz, Conover and his Music USA were ‘a window to America’; a window which was open constantly and for a long time..

Willis Conover

From 1954, the second hour of this program was hosted by a commentator who introduced a new music cover, after which we would hear “Time for jazz! This is Willis Conover…” This is how we were first introduced to this inimitable Voice which for us became the real and only voice of America. With Conover’s appearance, we had the opportunity to stay informed of all the events in the world of modern jazz. And his voice and the musical cover “Take the “A” Train” was for many years the symbol of American jazz for those who listened to the radio station.

At home with everyone

Imposing, dynamic, with a great smile, showman-like manners and a marvelous mellow voice, Conover may as well have tried himself in Hollywood. But his career was predetermined. Willis organized concerts, hosted programs at jazz clubs in Washington and presented jazz starts at the Howard Theatre where in the late 40s and early 50s Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Buddy Rich, Bud Powell, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and others successfully appeared. Willis became accepted by the American jazz elite. His way of hosting concerts was simple, positive, natural and unpresumptuous. And in Conover’s short preludes there was so much information that they might have replaced a scholarly course in the history of jazz. A minimum of himself on stage and a maximum of love for musicians and their music.

And then came that lucky moment. Voice of America required a host for a jazz program. Willis offered his services and was hired. But Conover did not limit himself to the radio. What about the legendary festivals in Newport, Rhode Island and in New Orleans? What about unique concerts in prestigious New York halls and the Kennedy Centre in Washington? He was the soul, the organizer and the inspiration behind jazz events. It was Conover who was entrusted to put together the program and host the concert at the White House when President Richard Nixon threw a celebration in honour of Duke Ellington to mark his 70th birthday. It was Willis’ idea for the National Arts Foundation to patronize jazz and offer scholarships to young talents. Among the awards of this modest devotee, I would note, in my view, the most significant one – the award of America’s sound recording industry ‘For using music in throwing cultural bridges between the people of the world’. Willis Conover

On Russian wave The jazz bridge thrown by Conover connected America and Russia and is an even more unique structure than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, or any other one.

‘Willis Conover is our everything!’ – this is what any Russian jazzperson from the 60s would say. There would be no insincerity or undue praise. It was precisely Willis’ voice that made talented musicians of the former Soviet Union globally famous at the time when the Communist Party ideologists ‘straightened’ the saxophones of our jazz players and created obstacles on their way to concert stage. The formula ‘If you’re listening to jazz today, you’ll betray your homeland tomorrow’ is not just a Cold War relic or a tribute to human idiocy. It is also an ideological smog of the time when not only jazz players (and not only) could not breathe freely, but which in spite of this could not brainwash people and trained them to be firmer. To a large extent it is thanks to the Voice of America radio commentator. To put a famous joke in other words, being a guest on Conover’s program for our jazz musicians was like being given a Stradivari violin before a concert for a violinist or shooting from Comrade Dzierżyński’s revolver for a security officer. Conover offered the air and friendship to Oleg Lundström, German Lukyanov, Alexei Kozlov, Georgy Garanyan, David Goloschekin, Igor Bril, Alexander Oseichuk, Boris Frumkin… Alexei Kuznetsov once told me: ‘Once I was playing Gershwin’s “Summertime” for Conover in Warsaw. Willis loved it and said that from then on, he would call me Alexei Summertime. That has been my best jazz nickname ever.’

Willis Conover

The founder and head of Arsenal Alexei Kozlov often recalls his Christmas 1974 concert being aired by Conover. ‘We were fully banned by the government,’ Alexei said. ‘And Conover aired the unofficial Arsenal concert at Spaso House, where the American ambassador in Moscow resided. This strengthened Arsenal’s international reputation and positively affected the general opinion of our band in our country. Besides, we were finally left alone by national security folks.’ Boris Frumkin was happy to hear his “Romantic Waltz” on Willis’ air…
The list goes on. A whole team of Russia musicians were aired in the Music USA program editions. There were also live meetings with Conover in Moscow, Prague, Warsaw, Belgrade, Debrecen, Washington, and New York. Willis would meet musicians behind the scenes after the concerts, invite them to his studio and represent Russian jazz players during their tours around the States. If our every musician aired by their American friends wrote a little chapter meeting Willis on the short waves of Voice of America and in real life, quite a large book, one of love and gratitude, could be published.

Our ability to compete in international jazz has formed in part due to Conover’s altruistic ‘bridge-throwing’. Such a book might be published some day. He visited Russia three times and, as brilliant jazz history Yury Virmenich wittily puts it, ‘talking to him was like talking to a radio set on a 31-metre wave.’

Jazz was a pass to new horizons and new values that one would choose for themselves and not dictated by hypocrite political leaders. It was a paradox that after having gained world fame, Conover’s name continued to be unfamiliar for listeners in the States where radio airs on another frequency. Conover’s programs were meant for different ears. ‘Made in the USA’ was to be exported. And those to whom these ears belonged tagged their idol ‘Doctor Jazz’; a nickname Conover was proud of all his life.

From January 1955 (the first program aired on 31 December 1954), Conover entered every house across the ocean six times a week with his 45-minute-long international radio program Music USA, which he hosted at Voice of America’s Washington studio. It was a terrific mix of music and meaningful comments of the host. It was enough to take a little ‘sip’ from the air, and one would instantly make friends with great American jazz players and discover new musicians from different countries every time, including from the Soviet Union.

Willis Conover

To make the mix zestier, Conover frequented festivals and concert venues of various continents. To his listeners, he seemed like almighty Zeus who was in charge of the jazz elements of the world. This was the magnetism of Willis’ inimitable voice which was often compared to that of Yury Levitan. Meanwhile this handsome man with youthfully curious eyes hidden behind horn-rimmed spectacles was really a hermit of Studio 16 of Voice of America. His colleagues remembered him walking in worn-out slippers, with a cigarette between his teeth, sitting among a pile of records and kilometres of magnetic film. Willis Conover

It is useless to look up his name among those which were engraved in the Olympus of jazz. Conover was not a musician, even though his amazing sense of humour prompted him to record a forty-five as a ‘master of artistic whistle’ in which he performed jazz standards accompanied by famous musicians. Perhaps there was a hint of melancholy for real performance in Willis’ whistle? Who knows..? But one is for certain: without this man, our perception of jazz, the favourite child of the twentieth century, would certainly have been a hundred times less comprehensive. Willis first entered the air in 1939 as an 18-year-old college student. Then came military service during the Second World War and the Washington studio where he appeared at the microphone after being discharged. There, in addition to other duties, Conover created jazz music programs, until one day he was invited to host a concert of an orchestra established by young jazz players. Soon a record of this concert was released by the Brunswick music company. It was later rated five stars by the magazine Down Beat..

Willis Conover

Willis Conover

(18 December 1920 — 17 May 1996)