Comments on Conover (1)

The posting about Willis Conover brought the following message from one of his Voice of America colleagues, John Birchard.

I came to VOA in 1993, hired as a news broadcaster on the late night shift. Because of my hours, I almost never saw Willis, except for once in a while when he would be out on the steps of the building chatting with the smokers. I never felt right about horning into his conversations, just to say I admired his work… but I did note his shrunken figure and face and the big horn rims.

Early on, I got the impression that quite a few people—in middle management and above—looked upon him as the tail that wagged the dog, that he was entirely too big, but there was nothing they could do about it. When he died, other than a fairly perfunctory obit, there was little to indicate that anything important had happened. VOA continued to run his tapes week after week, month after month. I don’t know the story of the efforts to get him the Presidential Medal of Freedom—or the manner in which he was treated in connection with the White House Jazz Festival, but I can imagine the kinds of small minds at work to bring him down to their level.

One personal anecdote: During the decade of the 70s, Quinnipiac College (now University) in Hamden, Connecticut, played host to an annual intercollegiate jazz festival, featuring college bands from all over the east and midwest. The performances were judged by a panel of professional musicians and others which, at various times, included Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath, Ernie Wilkins, Chico O’Farrill, Father Norman O’Connor and Jimmy Lyons. During those years, I was a talk show host in New Haven and the festival producers saw fit to have me emcee the programs each Spring. The festivals ran from Friday through Sunday nites. But I had to do my talk show on Fridays ’til 9pm, so each year the producers would have someone fill in for me for the first hour of the evening. One Friday evening, I walked into the back of the hall and heard a familiar voice from up on stage.

Of course, it was Willis. Not many in the audience really knew who he was, but I did. I was convinced I had just lost my gig. I trotted backstage and one of the producers gave Willis the high sign and he introduced me, gracious and appropriate as always. As he walked offstage and I walked on, we shook hands and I thanked him. Then, to the audience, I said, “I’m not sure you know just how intimidating it is to have the most famous jazz disc jockey in the world substituting for me. I’m proud to share the same stage with Mr. Conover and it’s an honor to have him here.”

Mr. Birchard still broadcasts the news for the Voice of America.
For an obituary of Willis Conover, go here.

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