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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.

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