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.
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
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.
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.
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,
Mister 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
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.
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
And I'm Bob Doughty.
Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.