The campaign for a US postage stamp to honor the late Voice of America Broadcaster Willis Conover has surmounted a bureaucratic hurdle. Maristella Fuestle of the Conover archive at the University of North Texas reports that the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee of the Postal Service has agreed to consider the proposal. The committee makes stamp recommendations to Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan. The notification made no mention of a timetable.
In response to renewed interest in Conover’s role in the cultural diplomacy of the Cold War, clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera sent an excerpt and a 1984 photograph from his 2005 book My Sax Life. D’Rivera defected to the United States from Cuba in 1981.
This travel fever was a decisive factor behind the formation of the group Irakere, one of the most important Cuban bands ever. Irakere, which means forest or jungle in an African language, was the new name of our group, but it was nothing more than “old wine in a new bottle,” as the gringos say. We were, more or less, the same guys from the Musical Theater, the Army Band, and the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music, the ones who had phoned each other for years to find out what Willis Conover was going to broadcast on his Voice of America radio program, The Jazz Hour.
Through Conover’s show, we got to know the music of Woody Shaw, Gabor Szabo, Roger Kellaway, Joe Henderson, Catalonian pianist Tete Montoliu, Don Ellis, David Samborn, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, and many, many other artists whose records were not available in Cuba.
In the year 1970, we were somehow able to travel to the Warsaw Jazz Jamboree with the Quinteto Cubano de Jazz, which made its live recording debut on the local label Polsky Nagrania, featuring Chucho’s piece entitled “Misa Negra,” a jazz suite on Afro-Cuban folkloric themes. That’s where we finally met the prestigious radio personality with the deep voice. Ten years later, after I had recently arrived in the United States, Conover graciously invited me to his famous program, transmitted from the V.O.A. studios in Washington, D.C., while I was in the nation’s capital for my first performance at Georgetown’s Blues Alley with my quintet.
What a great thrill it was to sit in that same studio and broadcast this music to Cuba while sitting next to the man who enlightened our lives so much during our years of deep isolation. I remember his first words before we began to record the program: “This is a musical program, and the best way to be political is by not talking about politics, all right?. . . sssh, we’re going on the air.”
The small studio seemed to light up when he played the first measures of Billy Strayhorn’s familiar standard “Take The A Train,” the show’s theme-song, as interpreted by Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, which I had heard so many times through the speakers of my Russian short-wave radio in Havana (and through so many Russian radios in Russia, North Korea, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, Rumania, and Bulgaria). And then on cue, that deep voice that seemed to emerge from the depths of that captivating music, making an introduction I knew as well as my own name: “Music U.S.A., part one. . . This is Willis Conover speaking from the Voice of America’s Jazz Hour… Today we will present music by Cuban saxophonist-composer Paquito D’Rivera!”
For details about Conover’s career, the stamp proposal and efforts to see that he is posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, see my recent article in The Wall Street Journal.