Willis Conover Honored: A Good First Step

The White House has yet to award a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to Willis Conover. But there has been progress toward that goal. I was delighted to learn when I got off the road this week that Congress proclaimed April 25 Willis Conover Day. He was honored during celebrations on the National Mall. Finally, his nation has given official recognition to the Voice Of America broadcaster who sent jazz to the world and, without indulging in propaganda or politics, helped to end the Cold War. Here is part of one of many Rifftides items about Conover.

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 independence. While our leaders and those of the Soviet bloc stared one another down across the nuclear abyss, in hisConover.jpg stately bass-baritone voice Willis introduced listeners around the world to jazz and American popular music. 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.

To read all of that item, follow this link.
Below is a video broadcast in Russian following a Washington, DC, concert in the fall of 2007, honoring Conover’s memory. It gives us a glimpse of Willis at work in his VOA studio not long before his death in 1996. As a direct result of listening to Conover’s VOA programs, the players in the concert all developed as jazz musicians behind the iron curtain. They are Paquito D’Rivera, alto saxophone (Cuba); Valery Ponomarev, trumpet (Soviet Union); Milcho Leviev, piano (Bulgaria); George Mraz, bass (Czechoslovakia); Horacio Hernandez, drums (Cuba). The piece is Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” the theme music for Conover’s Music USA.
This gathering of world-class artists inspired by Conover to become jazz musiciains expresses more powerfully than any congressional resolution his contribution to US cultural diplomacy. Still, that presidential Medal of Freedom is long overdue.

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  1. Noel says

    Thanks for bringing back important and lasting memories of a great man and his great program. It would be 10 pm local time in the South Pacific, time for the Pacific release of Music USA by the Voice of America, and there would be Willis and the “A” Train. Many hours of the greatest music in the world would follow. What a way to grow up.
    Too bad that so many people in the US itself never knew of him.

  2. Jon Foley says

    Unfortunately, I was only able to hear his program live once, on a scratchy shortwave radio in the USA, but several of my CDs (the ones recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival) would be less valuable to me without his mellow introductions.
    What’s the best way to press Obama (supposedly a jazz fan) to honor him with the Medal of Freedom?
    It’s way overdue.
    (Go to http://www.whitehouse.gov/CONTACT/ and fill out the e-mail form. In the “Subject” box, write “Dear Mr. President” and urge him to give Willis Conover the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Paste in the link to this Rifftides story as background for President Obama and his staff:
    Or write the President at:
    The White House
    1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
    Washington, DC 20500
    He won’t see the message initially, of course, but we can hope that someone on his staff will understand its importance and call it to his attention. — DR)

  3. Denis Ouellet says

    Wonderful. Well I am 60 and I remember listening to short waves back in the sixties.
    Even though I did not live behind the Iron Curtain the VOA Music USA with Willis was a beacon of hope. His voice became synonymus with jazz. As simple as that. It was pure joy amid all the war on the air waves of the other broadcasters. Even after more than 50 years, theses sounds are still reverbarating with me.
    Thank you.

  4. John Birchard says

    I had the privilege of being the in-studio host of the concert that was broadcast live from the VOA Auditorium in memory of Willis on Sept 7, 2008 – and also in observance of Dizzy Gillespie’s first State Dept tour back in ’56. Paquito was his usual humorous self, but it was clear that Willis had an emormous imapct on his life as well as on the lives of the other four musicians that night.
    I’m no longer at VOA, having retired last September, but your efforts at keeping his name alive and obtaining an official appreciation in the form of a Medal of Freedom are much appreciated. Among the rank-and-file broadcasters at VOA, it’s generally agreed that Willis Conover’s jazz programs are the best things we ever did.

  5. Anand Doraswami says

    I first learnt about jazz from Willis Conover. The introduction of this video brought back many happy memories of the hours of his jazz programe that I heard on shortwave radio. Thanks for this video featuring so many musicians whom his programme inspired and may the campaign to honour Willis Conover succeed.