Willis Conover

Rifftides Reader John Thomas noticed the recent postings about Johnny Mandel and kindly loaned me a CDR copy of a rare vinyl album containing Mandel’s arrangement of “The Song Is You.” The 1953 Brunswick LP has been out of print for at least forty years and reissued on CD only in a limited Japanese edition. It is called Willis Conover’s House of Sounds: Willis Conover presents THE Orchestra. THE Orchestra was a first-rate Washington, DC, band led by Joe Timer. It included wonderful players like Earl Swope, Jack Nimitz and Marky Markowitz. Conover was a local broadcaster whose accomplishments included helping to desegregate Washington by requiring that blacks be admitted to clubs in which he organized concerts.

Through most of the cold war, Conover was the host of Music USA on the Voice of America. He was never a government employee, always working under a free lance contract to maintain his indepence. While our leaders and those of the Soviet bloc stared one another down across the nuclear abyss, in his stately bass-baritone voice Willis introduced listeners around the world to jazz and American popular music. IMG007.JPG With knowledge, taste, dignity and no trace of politics, he played for nations of captive peoples the music of freedom. He interviewed virtually every prominent jazz figure of the second half of the twentieth century. Countless Eastern European musicians give him credit for bringing them into jazz. Because the Voice is not allowed to broadcast to the United States, Conover was unknown to the citizens of his own country. For millions behind the iron curtain he was an emblem of America, democracy and liberty. Gene Lees makes the case, to which I subscribe wholeheartedly, that,

…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.

In the January 2002 issue of his invaluable JazzLetter, Lees told Conover’s story, including an account of the attempts to have him presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The effort began when George H.W. Bush was president and continued into the current administration. Among those pushing for the honor when Willis was alive and after he died in 1996 were Lees, several other prominent writers and Leonard Garment, who was a White House counsel in the Nixon administration and had been a professional musician. The first President Bush, President Clinton and the second President Bush ignored all letters and presentations about Willis. Conover remains unrecognized by the nation for which he did so much. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the award recently presented to Paul Wolfowitz and other administration figures for their parts in the iraq war.

The JazzLetter costs $70 a year. Sometimes it arrives considerably after the monthly dateline of the latest issue. It is worth the money and worth the wait. Gene writes about music and other matters with skill, erudition and passion. Much of his JazzLetter work eventually makes its way into his books, of which there is now quite a number. Lees and the JazzLetter do not have a website. They do have an e-mail address and a mailing address.

Gene Lees JazzLetter
P.O. Box 240
Ojai, California 93024-0240

It may be that if you subscribe you can talk Gene into giving you a bonus copy of the issue about Conover. After I read it, I wrote the following letter, which ran in the February, 2002 issue

Dear Gene,

I want to tell you about my last lunch with Willis Conover, but the story needs background. In 1968, Willis was the MC for JazzFest, the New Orleans jazz festival. He did a splendid job. As board members of the festival, Danny Barker, Al Belletto and I fought hard to persuade the board to accept Willis’s proposal that he produce the 1969 festival. The other board members knew as little as most Americans knew about Willis. We educated them. Over a number of contentious meetings and the strong reservations of the chairman, Willis was hired. The ’69 festival turned out to be one of the great events in the history of the music. It reflected Willis’s knowledge, taste, judgment, and the enormous regard the best jazz musicians in the world had for him.

I won’t give you the complete list of talent. Suffice it to report that the house band for the week was Zoot Sims, Clark Terry, Jaki Byard, Milt Hinton and Alan Dawson, and that some of the hundred or so musicians who performed were Sarah Vaughan, the Count Basie band, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Albert Mangelsdorff, Roland Kirk, Jimmy Giuffre, the Onward Brass Band, Rita Reyes, Al Belletto, Eddie Miller, Graham Collier, Earle Warren, Buddy Tate, Dickie Wells, Pete Fountain, Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie. The festival had style, dignity and panache. It was a festival of music, not a carnival. An enormous amount of the credit for that goes to Willis. His achievement came only after months of infighting with the chairman and other retrograde members of the jazz establishment who did not understand or accept mainstream, much less modern, jazz and who wanted the festival to be the mini-Mardi Gras that it became the next year and has been ever since. They tried at every turn to subvert the conditions of Willis’s contract, which gave him extensive, but not complete, artistic control. Because Willis was tied to his demanding Voice of America schedule in Washington, DC, much of the wrangling was by telephone and letter. He flew down to New Orleans frequently for meetings, which he despised as much as I did. He did not need all of that grief. He pursued his stewardship of the festival because he had a vision of how the music he loved should be presented.

The nastiness took its toll. When it was over, Willis was depleted, demoralized, bitter and barely consoled that he had produced a milestone festival. In the course of the battle, he and I became allies and close friends. As a purgative, he was going to write a book about his New Orleans experience, but I’m glad he didn’t; the issue is dead and so are many of the dramatis personae. Charlie Suhor covers much of the 1969 story in his book Jazz In New Orleans (Scarecrow Press). One night Willis and I were alternately commiserating and acting silly at the bar of the Napolean House over a couple of bottles of Labatt, his favorite Canadian ale. After a moment of silence, he turned to me and said in that deep rumble, “I love you, man.” The moment is one of my most precious memories. We were friends and confidants after my family and I moved to New York, where he had an apartment, and remained so after I left for other cities and we didn’t see each other for years at a time.

In 1996, not long after the scandalous treatment you described Willis receiving at the White House jazz festival, I was in Washington for a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It was about a month before he died. Willis invited me to lunch at the Cosmos Club, where he maintained a membership. I doubt if, at the end, he could afford it, but it was important to him to be there, to feel a part of the old Washington he loved. He was at the door of the club when my cab pulled up. In the year since I had last seen him, he had shrunk into an Oliphant caricature, his horn-rimmed glasses outsized on his face, his shoulders and chest pinched, sunken.

Even his leonine head seemed smaller. His hair and his face were mostly gray. He led me to the elegant dining room, on the way introducing me to a couple of men. He had momentary difficulty remembering one of their names. At the table, Willis launched into a diatribe against his old New Orleans enemy, but gave it up and started reciting some of his limericks. He wrote devastatingly funny and wicked topical limericks. But this day it was all by rote. He was strangely absent, and his speech was irregular, partly because of the ravages of the oral cancer he survived and partly, I thought, because he must have had a stroke. I could not lead him into any topic long enough for a conversation to develop, so I sat back and tried to enjoy the limericks. He seemed to want to entertain me, and I imagine he was deflecting any possible attempt on my part to be sympathetic or maudlin.

I was due at a meeting and, after coffee, Willis asked the waiter to call a taxi for me. He walked me to the door and we stood silently in the entry of that magnificent old building. When the cab arrived, I had to say something. I didn’t want it to be “goodbye,” so I said, “I love you, man.” Willis swallowed and blinked. I gave him a hug and climbed into the cab. As it made a left turn out of the drive, I looked over at the entrance. Willis had disappeared into the Cosmos.


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