News / Arts & Entertainment

Remembering Willis Conover

Willis Conover broadcasting at the Voice of America (undated photo)
Willis Conover broadcasting at the Voice of America (undated photo)

Willis Conover's long-running "Jazz Hour" broadcast on the Voice of America introduced millions of people in the former Soviet Union to American jazz.  Willis Conover would have been 90 years old this month.  But his impact is still recognized today.  

With his deep baritone voice, Willis Conover brought jazz into the homes of listeners around the world, inspiring the next generation of stars.  His daily hour-long jazz broadcast on the Voice of America was especially meaningful for those who tuned in from behind the Iron Curtain. Conover's "Jazz Hour" was for many the only exposure to music from the West.

Alexei Kozlov is the founder of the popular Russian jazz ensemble, Arsenal.  As a university architecture student, he says, he was led by Conover into the world of jazz, inspiring him to learn to play the saxophone.

"Despite the forbiddance [prohibition] of Voice of America programming in Soviet countries, we still listened to Voice of America, putting ourselves and our families in real danger," he said. "We learned everything from Conover. While there was propaganda against everything American, Conover was the one who made America to be appealing and desirable for everyone who listened."

Conover's "Jazz Hour" provided a platform for household names in the West - like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Count Basie - to be introduced to East European audiences.  But for fledgling musicians, his show also provided an education in the art of jazz, helping them make the transition from passive listeners to active participants in the music.  

Victor Fonarev, from Latvia, is now a professional bass player in the United States.  He was introduced to Conover's program while attending aviation college in Riga.  

"Every evening, I tried to sneak into the only classroom that had a radio player," he said. "Everyone at home was asleep, so they didn't know I was gone, otherwise I would have been grounded for listening to the prohibited programming."

From 1955, until his death in 1996, Conover worked from his small studio in Washington, D.C. From here, under clouds of cigarette smoke, he projected his love of jazz to the world.

"I could have never imagined in a million years that someday I'd be standing at the actual studio of Willis Conover - the legend," said Fonarev. "That I'd actually be in the studio, from which Conover talked about jazz in his charming velvet voice."

Efim Drucker is a producer at VOA.  He worked in that very studio with Conover for eight years.  While still in Russia, Drucker became an avid listener of the "Jazz Hour."  After immigrating to the United States he sought employment with the radio host he admired so much. Drucker says Conover devoted his life to the "Jazz Hour."

He says Conover and his staff worked long hours to ensure that the VOA audience heard music of the highest quality.  
"He was very precise, detail-oriented," said Drucker. "We didn't have CDs then, we had vinyl records, and so if there was even a small scratch of a sound, he asked me to cut them out.  Sometimes I'd spend a full day cutting out the scratches.  But it was worth it - the sound was impeccable. And that's how Conover's music was remembered in Russia - impeccable and magical."

Conover's attention to detail and his knack for explaining jazz to the masses may never be replicated.  But in an interview near the end of  his career, he seemed to feel he had accomplished his own individual goals.

"I have to feel that it is good," Conover said. "Otherwise I'm going to be unhappy for what I've done. I don't want to do just something for money. Or, for fame. Or, for power. I've never been jealous of anyone who has money, power, or fame. What I want to do is something that feels that my life was worthwhile. And…I think I would feel this way on my last day."

Jazz is now taught and performed around the world.  And among those who are now the teachers of today's jazz stars are faces from the former Soviet Union.  In achieving his own dream, Willis Conover helped others achieve theirs.

You May Like

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the latest edition of "Beyond Category" blues singer and guitarist Corey Harris performs with his band and talks about his travels in West Africa tracing the roots of the blues.