Ken Dryden writes:
I enjoyed reading Paul Blair’s comments about the late Willis Conover. What ever happened to his jazz collection–is it still in the VOA archives or was it disposed of with his estate, donated to an archives, etc.? Maybe Paul should get busy on a Conover bio.
I just picked up a DVD of the 1969 New Orleans Jazz Festival, whose lineup he was instrumental in putting together (before politics turned it into a commercial multi-cultural event with significantly less jazz content). He’s shown emceeing a group (Clark Terry, Zoot Sims, Jaki Byard, Milt Hinton and Alan Dawson, plus a deservedly obscure singer on one song) in the Court of Two Sisters courtyard, a place legendary for its awful food, even though it is a picturesque setting.
As Mr. Dryden knows, but perhaps others do not, Conover was central to the success of the 1969 New Orleans jazz festival, a milestone event of its kind. He produced it. Here is a little of what I wrote about it in the Rifftides piece that initiated this periodic Conover retrospective and the subsequent discussion of the peril facing the Voice of America’s English language broadcasts.
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.
For more on the ’69 JazzFest and Conover, go here. Also, read Charles Suhor’s accounts in Jazz In New Orleans: The Postwar Years Through 1970.