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

Taliban's New Leader Says Jihad Will Continue

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

Video US Landmark Pushes Endangered Species

People gathered in streets, on rooftops in Manhattan to see image highlights that covered 33 floors of Empire State Building More

World’s Widest Suspension Bridge Being Built Over Bosphorus

Once built, Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge will span 2 kilometers with about 1.5 kilometers over water, and will be longest suspension bridge in world carrying rail system 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.
Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missionsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
July 30, 2015 8:59 PM
Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”