An international campaign is underway to win national recognition for Willis Conover, the Voice Of America broadcaster who sent American jazz to millions of listeners around the world. A petition drive is aimed at persuading the United States Postal Service to issue a stamp honoring Conover (1920-1996). Efforts to win him a posthumous Presidential Medal Of Freedom have yet to yield results. Admirers established a Conover Facebook page in 2010, but recognition by the US government has been limited to tokens: his name twice being read into the Congressional Record.
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 his 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. The late Gene Lees made the case for recognition, to which I subscribe wholeheartedly.
…Willis Conover did more to crumble the Berlin wall and bring about the collapse of the Soviet Empire than all the Cold War presidents put together.
Will this postal stamp petition lead to Conover’s getting a long overdue posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom? Perhaps it will if infuential senators and congressmen get behind the idea and persuade the White House. At the very least, the Postal Service honor could be an effective first step. The organizers’ goal is a thousand names. Let’s deluge them with signatures in multiples of a thousand. To learn more and to sign the petition, go here.
One of the great contributions of Conover’s career was the part he played in organizing the White House tribute to Duke Ellington on Ellington’s 70th birthday in 1969. Willis put together the ten-piece band that serenaded Ellington with his own music, plus guest musicians Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, Willie The Lion Smith, Dave Brubeck, Billy Taylor, Joe Williams and Mary Mayo. Drummer Louis Bellson arranged his former boss’s music for the occasion. The piece is “In A Mellotone.” The soloists, in order, are Paul Desmond, Bill Berry, Urbie Green, Jim Hall, Gerry Mulligan, Clark Terry and Hank Jones.
After years of negotiations, Blue Note Records finally released a CD of the Ellington White House tribute concert in 2002.
For a Dave Frishberg sidebar on Conover’s cold shoulder from the VOA itself, see this 2006 Rifftides post.