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Conover’s Coming Over: Willis Conover and Jazz at the VOA

Working for decades as a broadcaster for the Voice of America, Willis Conover was perhaps the most influential and widely-heard jazz DJ of the 20th century.

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  • Willis Conover in Poland

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    Photo: Wikimedia

    Willis Conover in Poland in 1959. The DJ found himself in disbelief when his first visits behind the Iron Curtain inspired rapturous receptions.

  • Willis Conover biography

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    Photo: Book cover.

    Terence Ripmaster's biography of Conover portrays a man passionate about his work, often at the expense of his personal life.

  • Willis Conover 1969

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    Photo: Wikimedia

    Knocking a few holes in the Berlin Wall: Conover broadcasting in 1969.

“Willis Conover did more to crumble the Berlin wall and bring about collapse of the Soviet empire than all the Cold War presidents put together,” jazz writer Gene Lees once said.

Working for decades as a broadcaster for the Voice of America, Conover was perhaps the most influential and widely-heard jazz DJ of the 20th century. He brought the music into eastern Europe and other areas of the world where jazz was either repressed or commercially unavailable, helping to bridge the cultural gap between Western and Communist-bloc countries.

In addition to the many fans he garnered around the globe, Conover counted jazz greats such as Duke Ellington among his friends. An advocate of breaking down racial barriers, a proponent and MC for the Newport Jazz Festival, and a force behind the National Endowment for the Art’s funding of jazz, Conover left his imprint upon the American jazz scene as well, but Congressional restrictions prevented his program Music USA from being aired in the United States, and consequently he remained, in some ways, a stranger in his own country.

He was a sophisticated but lonely man who sacrificed much of his personal life for what he viewed as his calling–promoting jazz throughout the world over the Voice of America airwaves. He passed away in 1996 after a long battle with cancer, his efforts and achievements largely unrecognized by his own government.

We’ll talk with Conover biographer Terence Ripmaster, author of Willis Conover: Broadcasting Jazz to the World, and we’ll hear excerpts of some Conover broadcasts, as well as artists that Conover promoted or inspired, such as The Orchestra (featuring an appearance by Charlie Parker and a rare recording of an early Johnny Mandel arrangement) and pianist Adam Makowicz. We’ll also hear a tribute from legendary jazz producer George Avakian, and two musical recordings that Conover made with guitarist Charlie Byrd–”Far Off, Close By” (Conover’s so-called “whistling” song”) and “The Empty Streets” (featuring a haunting late-night recital by the DJ).

Jazz writer Doug Ramsey has posted periodically about Conover and you can read his thoughts and reflections here, here, here and here. He also noted a tribute concert for Conover this past autumn.

Read about the 70th-birthday party for Duke Ellington that Conover organized and hosted at the White House in 1969.

You can hear Conover’s introduction to his Voice of America jazz program in this brief video tribute clip:

Special thanks to Terry Ripmaster, Doug Ramsey, Michael McGerr, and George Avakian for their assistance with this program.

Music Heard On This Episode

Take the A Train (excerpt/theme)
Duke Ellington — Never No Lament (Bluebird/RCA, 1941)
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Take the A Train (excerpt/theme)
Duke Ellington — Never No Lament (Bluebird/RCA, 1941)
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Cherokee (excerpt)
Charlie Barnet
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Chelsea Bridge (excerpt)
Duke Ellington — Never No Lament (Bluebird/RCA, 1942)
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The Song Is You
The Orchestra — Willis Conover's House of Sounds (Brunswick, 1953)

Notes: Arrangement by Johnny Mandel.

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Corner Pocket (excerpt)
Count Basie — April in Paris (Verve, 1955)
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Willis
The Orchestra with Charlie Parker — The Washington Concerts (Blue Note/Elektra, 1953)

Notes: Written by Bill Potts--title is a tribute to Willis Conover.

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The Empty Streets
Willis Conover/Charlie Byrd — (45) (Columbia)

Notes: Co-written by Conover and Alec Wilder.

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Fine and Dandy
The Orchestra With Charlie Parker — The Washington Concerts (Blue Note/Elektra, 1953)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

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On the Sunny Side of the Street (excerpt)
Louis Armstrong — Happy Birthday Newport! 50 Swinging Years (Sony, 1958)

Notes: with the Newport International Jazz Band

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Jump for Joy
All-Star Ellington Tribute Band — 1969 All-Star White House Tribute (Blue Note, 1969)

Notes: Joe Williams on vocals.

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Tatum On My Mind
Adam Makowicz — At Maybeck (Concord, 1993)
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Stars and Stripes Forever
Eubie Blake — (1969 New Orleans jazz festival)
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Early Autumn (excerpt)
Ben Webster — Music for Loving (Verve, 1955)
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Far Off, Close By
Willis Conover/Charlie Byrd — (45) (Columbia)

Notes: Co-written by Conover and Alec Wilder.

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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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  • Bill Forbes

    I’m certainly looking forward to this show. Conover’s program brought me up-to-date American jazz sounds which were rarely heard in Britain in the late 50s and early 60s. I remember listening with my ear to the receiver, trying to hear the music through a barrage of static on long wave radio. To get through all this,
    a piece had to have something extra. I remember that Gil Evans’ version of George Russell’s “Jambangle”, which I was hearing for the first time in about 1958, certainly had it! At a point the mid-60s, Conover repeatedly offered free back copies of Downbeat and Metronome to anyone who would write in. I replied and duly received my copies. Shortly after, the program disappeared off the air for ever. I think I had been part of an exercise to estimate audience size, which had produced an unfortunate result for jazz enthusiasts!

  • Dave Berk

    David—–congratulations on providing such a glorious & enriching experience.

    I remember reading the DOWNBEAT review of the “House Of Sounds”
    and it spoke rapturously of “The Song Is You.” I ran out to Glen Wallich’s
    Music City to score a copy of the Brunswick LP. I loved big bands, vibes and Sarah Vaughan. I wore it out. I was 16.

  • http://www.deepanjannag.com Deepanjan Nag

    I’m from India and one of my favorite memories from childhood is of listening to Willis Conover’s Jazz Hour on VOA on Dad’s vintage radio. My past is incomplete without Conover.

  • http://www.deepanjannag.com/ Deepanjan Nag

    I'm from India and one of my favorite memories from childhood is of listening to Willis Conover's Jazz Hour on VOA on Dad's vintage radio. My past is incomplete without Conover.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marie.lamb2 Marie Lamb

    Thank you for posting the audio of this wonderful program! I am a broadcaster, and Willis was one of my inspirations to get into radio. Claire Conover, Willis' great-grand-niece, has a Facebook page devoted to his memory that I found out about today, and she encourages all of his friends and fans to check it out and to share their memories of this great broadcaster, great jazz supporter/promoter, and great human being. Everyone is invited to Willis Conover's Facebook tribute page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Willis-Conover/11

  • Pingback: The World-Famous Radio DJ You Never Heard Of | Miss Music Nerd!

  • Ashok Jacob

    For Jazz lovers in India it was the fabulous baritone of Willis Conover that brought jazz to us over short wave radio for so many years. He was our only window to the world of jazz.RIP.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jazzophile Ashwin Panemangalore

    Such nostalgia ! What a treasure ! For years I would be glued to the radio each night after dinner listening to Connover’s stentorian as he introduced us to Miles, Monk Mingus, Trane, Duke….and their music We got all our jazz learnings thanks to him Connover then inaugurated our very first Jazz Yatra in Bombay India where so many greats like Sonny Rollins played

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