While most of us would attribute the fall of the Soviet empire to a multitude of reasons ... for our friends on Planet Starboard, it's rather simple. Ronald Reagan ... OK, maybe Margaret Thatcher, too. Some pundits might add Pope John Paul II, as well. In any case, some chalk it up to personalities. Well, why can't folks such as us add a non-political name to the list?
For those of us who grew up in the rock'n'roll era: that music was quite feared by the authorities. But to an earlier generation, jazz was the threat (particularly to totalitarian governments around the world). And perhaps no single person brought the sound of this threatening music to more people around the world than Willis Conover - via his one-hour "Music USA" program over the Voice of America (VOA) program from 1955 until his death in 1996, fifteen years ago next month.
Yet he is someone (for a very particular reason) whose name is unknown to most native-born Americans. Let's begin to rectify this after the jump .....
... but first: Top Comments appears nightly, as a round-up of the best comments on Daily Kos. Surely you come across comments daily that are perceptive, apropos and .. well, perhaps even humorous. But they are more meaningful if they're well-known ... which is where you come in (especially in diaries/stories receiving little attention).
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The Buffalo, New York native Willis Conover (born in 1920) was an Army brat who had an interest in science fiction, and even edited the Science Fantasy Correspondent – a 1937 fanzine of its day. He had contact with the science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft near the end of his life, and their correspondence was published in the book Lovecraft at Last in 1975.
Conover had a sonorous baritone voice that sounded great when he took part in a high school spelling bee broadcast on the radio - he was told by the announcer that this was the field for him. And so he began at small stations in Maryland, and his experience talking to people over the airwaves resulted in (after being drafted into WW-II) a stateside task interviewing new soldiers at Fort Meade, Maryland. While at a USO canteen near the White House, he convinced its organizers to ditch the André Kostelanetz records they were playing in favor of works by the Dorsey Brothers and Artie Shaw. The audience reaction was so positive that one of the hostesses introduced Conover to her radio-station manager husband - and after the war, he was hired as a DJ in Washington, D.C.
Along the way, Willis Conover became involved in the business of jazz: organizing many live concerts (and his insistence on not allowing segregation helped topple the District of Columbia's Jim Crow system) as well as producing performances for radio (and later TV). Knowing many of the premier musicians, he was able to work well with them, producing shows at the Kennedy Center in Washington and - years later - organized the White House performance of Duke Ellington in 1969 (for his 70th birthday).
But earlier, Conover was tired of the increasingly restricted format of commercial radio and longed for a more free-flowing format. In 1955, his big break came: the Voice of America wanted to start a one-hour (commercial-free) jazz program, and he was hired for the job. And since the VOA is legally prohibited to be broadcast in the US (because it reflects the general intentions of the US government) Conover had a potentially new, world-wide audience who would be more accepting of a wide-ranging format - not following old, established patterns – which is just what he had hoped for.
Yet at the time, there were "immediate grumblings in Congress about wasting taxpayers' money by broadcasting frivolous music". Back then, that might have been a bi-partisan exercise (today, couldn’t you just hear the Tea Party warbling about this?). Part of the problem was the aforementioned prohibition on the VOA broadcasting within the US (unless one has a short-wave radio) ... since legislators could not hear the shows, how could they assess its effectiveness? It took the effort of diplomats such as Charles Bohlen - then our ambassador to the Soviet Union - in order to secure the funding for this program.
In recent decades, governmental efforts to propagate press-release information world-wide via the airwaves (with Radio Marti as an example) I can't help but marvel that the VOA was able to be very influential merely by reporting the facts. And Willis Conover was able to achieve world-wide stardom by merely presenting American music to the rest of the world. He had that perfect radio voice, as was already mentioned. In addition, he learned to speak what was referred to as Special English - slowly and to enunciate quite clearly - not only for the benefit of those who did not speak English, but also for those listening on short-wave and poor transistor radios. And that was one aspect of his programs that listeners recalled decades later (along with his using Duke Ellington's Take the A Train as his opening theme).
As mentioned, jazz was seen as a decadent music (in no small part to the major presence of African-American and Jewish performers) in totalitarian nations. Josef Stalin had banned the playing of the saxophone, referring to it as "a dangerous capitalist instrument" - and while the ban began to fade after his death in 1953: the operative word is "began". As late as 1970, the Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval - as a 21 year-old in compulsory military service - was jailed for four months for listening to Willis Conover's show (Sandoval got his revenge by defecting twenty years later).
At his peak, Willis Conover's show was estimated to have reached 100 million world-wide - all broadcast from a cramped studio in Washington, D.C. And 30 million of that total was in Eastern Europe alone - especially at a time when the VOA (as well as jazz music) was banned in many Eastern European countries.
Arriving on an airplane in one such country in 1959 (four years after that nation ended prohibition of the VOA) he was baffled to see people gathering around his plane ..... then saw a large sign that read, "Welcome to Poland, Mister Conover." On a trip to Moscow, a cab driver recognized his voice, and he was especially popular in the Soviet Union where the VOA was secretly listened to for information (as well as its music).
Years later, many artists and musicians cited his program. The poet Joseph Brodsky wrote that in listening to his shows, "the joints of highly inhibited Russian frames harkened to 'swing.'" In 2007, the Voice of America featured a tribute concert with five veteran musicians whose careers were launched by listening to Willis Conover - Paquito D'Rivera on saxophones (Cuba), Milcho Leviev on piano (Bulgaria), George Mraz on bass (Czech Republic), Valery Ponomarev on trumpet (Russia), and Horacio Hernandez on drums (Cuba).
Another reason for Conover's popularity was that he not only spun records; he also conducted numerous on-air interviews with the musicians whose music he showcased (him with Sarah Vaughn, 2nd photo) and one he conducted in 1973 with Duke Ellington was one of Duke's last before his death the next year. And so these musicians (especially those who performed instrumental music) became real people in his listener's ears.
One blogger from India posted posted such a link, and received some replies; including one who listened to Conover via transistor radio back in the old country during the 1960's. He also received replies from residents of the UK and Ecuador; others received replies from South Africa and Japan - this was a program whose appeal was not limited to the Communist bloc, by any means.
And so when we hear that the ending of the Cold War came from only a few people ... well, the Armenian-born pianist David Azarian once told DownBeat magazine, "When you are in a jail, that music makes you wonder what kind of country produced it. I tell you, Conover was America's best weapon to destroy Communism." And the Canadian jazz writer Gene Lees - whose English lyrics made the Antonio Carlos Jobim song "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars" a hit - once wrote, “Willis Conover did more to crumble the Berlin wall and bring about collapse of the Soviet empire than all the Cold War presidents put together".
So it was fitting that in 1993, the US House of Representatives - who had a fierce debate thirty-eight years earlier about the wisdom of funding his program - honored him with a resolution praising the man who had been called one of the country's "greatest foreign-policy tools".
A heavy smoker, Willis Conover died in May, 1996 (nearly fifteen years ago) of lung cancer at age 75. Willis always worked for VOA as a contractor rather than in the civil service. This, he said, was to protect his "independence," though it may also have provided him with more generous remuneration than received by the usual starting VOA broadcaster. However, as a contractor Willis did not receive health benefits, which would have helped him as his health failed in the 1990's. And his personal life was troubled; being married five times.
So far, a campaign to have him awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom - led by former Nixon aide Leonard Garment - has been unsuccessful. But fittingly, as a sign of Willis Conover's stature: he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in his adopted Washington, D.C.
He said that his favorite song was the Billy Strayhorn tune Chelsea Bridge as performed by Ben Webster. Given that is an instrumental, how about lyrics that Conover himself wrote (and recited) for guitarist Charlie Byrd called The Empty Streets - which you can listen to at this link (the last audio selection).
I know the day, I know the night
I know the skyline in early light
The empty streets before the dawn
The playgrounds when the kids are gone
The harbor bells, I know them well
What does it mean? How much is real?
The things I see .. or the things I feel?
Perhaps the world is what it seems
Believe your eyes, forget the dreams
But where's the town I've always known?
It looks familiar, but I'm alone
I lost a world where I belonged
It wasn't right, it wasn't wrong
But it was real and she was here
And now she's gone
Now, on to Top Comments:
flitedocnm came late to the party in jamess' excellent recommended diary Business Owners Speak: Tax Cuts don't Create Jobs -- they Create Deficits ...... but then had this great comment.
From Ana Thema:
In today's RKBA diary diary, Otteray Scribe educates us that "socks are the larval forms of clothes hangars."
And from Ed Tracey, your faithful correspondent this evening ........
From today's Midday Open Thread ...
(1) - A look at a recent PPP poll of Mississippi Republicans noting a split on whether interracial marriage should be legal - caused RichM to respond thusly: "(This) is the reason why civil rights isn't something that should be left up to a popular vote".
(2) - about the story that former senator George "Macaca" Allen has twice (presumptuously) asked a tall African-American reporter what position he played in football, Loge offered this rumor - "George Allen went into politics because he was too dumb to go into the family business".
Finally, we are still hoping for the return of Top Mojo in the not-too-distant future.