The Rifftides discussion of the perilous situation of the Voice of Americaâ€™s English language broadcasting has a running sidebar about Willis Conover. Conover was the VOAâ€™s free lance jazz voice, one of the United Statesâ€™ most effective instruments of public diplomacy during the Cold War. Ironically, although he was a hero to millions behind the Iron Curtainâ€”teaching them about jazz and, as an unintended bonus, to speak Englishâ€”he was unknown to most Americans and unrecognized by the government of the nation to which he attrracted incalculable good will. Since Willis died in 1996, a number of people who understand the importance of his contribution have tried to see that he is awarded a posthumous presidential medal of freedom. The Clinton administration ignored the entreaties. The Bush White House has shunned them with equal ignorance and indifference. Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of the Iraq war, gets a medal of freedom. Willis Conover, who provided masses of people under Soviet bondage with hope and artistic object lesson in the meaning of freedom, does not.
Until the pianist, singer and songwriter Dave Frishberg sent the following story, I was unaware of the extent to which the VOA itself failed to recognize the importance of the man who brought so much credit to the agency and its country.
When Willis Conover was living in in New York around 1970 he assembled a big band under the direction of Bill Berry, and presented the band in a series of Sunday afternoon concerts at the Roosevelt Hotel. I was playing piano in the band, and that’s when Willis and I met.
In April, 1984 when I was playing in Washington DC, he invited me to lunch and told me to meet him at the Voice Of America studios. When I checked in at the security desk in the lobby, none of the security personnel had heard of Willis Conover, and I was denied access to an elevator. They looked in every possible phone directory and his name was nowhere to be found. I explained loudly that Willis Conover was THE VOICE in the Voice Of America, but they stared at me with mounting mistrust. A man walked by and heard me arguing with the security people and told me he was going up to VOA and would tell Willis that I was in the lobby. When Willis came down to get me, I told him “These security guards don’t even recognize your name!” He smiled and said , “I know. Ridiculous, isn’t it?”
To read the full Willis Conover story, go to this Rifftides posting from the archive. For more on Conover’s relationship with the Voice, go to the next exhibit.