Willis Conover: the jazz messiah who defused the Cold War
Current tensions between the United States and Russia over the Ukraine crisis bear a strong resemblance to the Cold War between the two nations in the mid-1950s. Jazz played a major role in helping to defuse tensions and the possibility of a another war.
Recently I spoke to a jazz musician in Krakow, Poland, Leszek Wisniowski about how he and other musicians were introduced to jazz. A name popped up that I instantly recognized and exclaimed, Willis Conover!
By the 1970s, shortwave radio dominated the airwaves, especially at night when radio signals were stronger. The radio was a constant companion and I discovered many stations playing classic western, pop, rock, country and jazz on the VOA (Voice of America) Jazz Hour.
Willis Conover was the “voice” who spoke in slow, clear English in a very articulate manner. “Willis Conover speaks. It’s the voice of America, Jazz Hour,” he said. He was the antithesis of a radio host when the others spoke in an excited and rushed manner.
Since winning a talent contest as a college student in 1955, Conover has been on the airwaves for as long as the Cold War lasted – 41 years. Conover hosted Music USA in the first hour but it was the second hour he hosted the Jazz Hour that made him a hit with listeners.
Jazz Hour had its signature tune, Ellington’s “Take The A Train” signaling the start of the show by radio host Conover who, in addition to choosing great jazz tunes to play, described in depth the composer and the accompanists who played on each jazz standard. He also interviewed big names such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
Conover hosting the show was no accident. It was the Cold War, remember? There have also been huge civil unrest and racial strife, as well as protest rallies across the United States. In order to project a better image abroad and in an apparent move to counter Soviet propaganda, America’s public relations machinery decided to showcase its culture and arts by sending classical and folk groups overseas to occur initially.
This did not arouse great enthusiasm in Europe, as the Soviets countered by presenting their own Bolshoi ballet and classical orchestras – a sort of culture war was brewing. It was then that an official suggested that the United States should consider promoting jazz instead.
The VOA Jazz Hour by Conover was already airing at the time and Dizzy Gillespie was chosen as the first brand ambassador to represent the United States in jazz concerts spread across Europe and the Eastern Bloc as well. than in Turkey. Jazz has spread like wildfire in this part of the world. Concerts by American jazz musicians sold out as enthusiastic fans thronged halls in Eastern Europe and Russia. Dave Brubeck Quartet toured 30 cities in Europe. Conover captured it all on air, after American jazz gigs across Europe.
Although in Soviet-occupied areas anything American, including jazz broadcasts, was banned, Conover had installed special transmitters in Munich and Tangier so that listeners around the world could continue to enjoy his broadcasts, listening to them secretly at night.
For musicians, Conover’s weekly shows were “lessons” in jazz. The rise of conservatories and jazz clubs in Europe and Russia can probably be attributed to the success of Conover’s VOA Jazz Hour.
But at home in America, Conover was virtually unknown because it continued to broadcast only on shortwave, which American listeners rarely listened to.
An influential jazz critic summed it up well: “Willis Conover did more to bring down the Berlin Wall and bring about the collapse of the Soviet empire than all the Cold War presidents put together.”
(The author is Principal of the Bangalore School of Music)