The Radio Broadcaster Who Fought the Cold War Abroad but Remained Unheard at Home
July 21, 2015 5:09 p.m. ET
During the Cold War, listeners in captive nations behind the Iron Curtain huddled around radios in basements and attics listening to the imposing bass-baritone voice of the man who sent them American music. His greeting—“Good evening, Willis Conover in Washington, D.C., with Music U.S.A.”—was familiar to millions around the world. At home, relatively few people knew him or his work. A proposal for a postage stamp honoring Conover may give hope to those who want the late Voice of America broadcaster to be awarded a larger mark of distinction.
Willis Conover during a radio show in 1967.Photo: Associated Press/Bob Daugherty
For 40 years, until shortly before his death in 1996, Conover’s shortwave broadcasts on the Voice of America constituted one of his country’s most effective instruments of cultural diplomacy. Never a government employee, to maintain his independence he worked as a freelance contractor. With knowledge, taste, dignity and no tinge of politics, he introduced his listeners to jazz and American popular music. He interviewed virtually every prominent jazz figure of the second half of the 20th century. His use of the VOA’s “special English”—simple vocabulary and structures spoken at a slow tempo—made him, in effect, a teacher of the language to his listeners.
Countless musicians from former Iron Curtain countries have credited Conover with attracting them to jazz, among them the Czech bassists George Mraz and Miroslav Vitous, the Cuban saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera and the Russian trumpeter Valery Ponomarev. On the Conover Facebook page established in 2010, Ponomarev wrote that Conover had done as much for jazz “as Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.” Conover’s New York Times obituary said, “In the long struggle between the forces of Communism and democracy, Mr. Conover, who went on the air in 1955 . . . proved more effective than a fleet of B-29’s.” In his publication Gene Lees Jazzletter, the influential critic wrote, “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.”
In its Dec. 9, 1966, issue, Time magazine quoted Conover on the importance of the music he championed. “Jazz tells more about America than any American can realize. It bespeaks vitality, strength, social mobility; it’s a free music with its own discipline, but not an imposed, inhibiting discipline.”
When Conover visited Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.—Poland for the first time in 1959, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in 1965—huge crowds gathered to greet him as a hero. But thanks to the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which forbids the VOA from broadcasting within the U.S., only Americans who snagged VOA shortwave signals directed overseas knew Conover’s programs. Attempts to persuade Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama to posthumously award Conover a Presidential Medal of Freedom have yielded no result.
There have been official recognitions, however slight. News articles about Conover were read into the Congressional Record in 1985 and 1993. In 2009, on a resolution introduced by Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, Congress declared a Willis Conover Day, and he was mentioned during celebrations on the National Mall. But the greatest appreciation has come from members of the public who set up the Conover Facebook page, just as a new campaign to have Conover recognized by way of a postage stamp grew out of a citizen petition. The petitioners’ goal was to collect a thousand signatures. As of July 18, the total was 7,757.
The Voice of America broadcast most of the early Newport Jazz Festivals, with Conover as master of ceremonies for many of the concerts. That increased his fame abroad and also made him known to festival audiences who, because of the Smith-Mundt Act, couldn’t listen to his broadcasts. He produced concerts at other festivals, notably the 1969 New Orleans Jazz Festival, remembered as one of the greatest of all such events. Its Stars included Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Eubie Blake and a host of Crescent City luminaries headed by Pete Fountain.
Conover’s VOA theme music was Duke Ellington’s “Take The ‘A’ Train.” Early in the first term of President Richard Nixon, he suggested that the president give Ellington a 70th birthday party at the White House. Nixon advisers Leonard Garment and Charles McWhorter got the president’s approval. In April 1969, Conover assembled an all-star band that included Clark Terry, Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan, with guest pianists Dave Brubeck, Earl Hines, Billy Taylor and Willie “The Lion” Smith. The all-stars serenaded Ellington with new arrangements of his music. Guests included an array of Washington dignitaries, and celebrities as various as film director Otto Preminger, composers Harold Arlen and Richard Rodgers, pianist Marian McPartland, and Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson. Mr. Nixon played the piano and led the guests in singing “Happy Birthday.” Then he awarded Ellington the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the New Yorker, Whitney Balliett wrote that Ellington “was finally given his due by his country.”
That is an honor that eluded Conover while he was alive. If the 13 members of the Postal Services Stamp Advisory Committee approve a Conover stamp, perhaps the posthumous medal won’t be far behind.
Mr. Ramsey writes about jazz for the Journal. He blogs about jazz and other matters at Rifftides, www.dougramsey.com.
Correction: The image caption in an earlier version listed the wrong date of the photo.