Conover, Willis Clark, Jr.

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Conover, Willis Clark, Jr.

(b. 18 October 1920 in Buffalo, New York; d. 17 May 1996 in Alexandria, Virginia), host of Voice of America’s Music USA Jazz Hour from 1955 to 1996, bringing jazz to an estimated 30 million listeners worldwide as “America’s Jazz Ambassador.”

Conover was the oldest of three children of a career army officer, Willis Clark Conover, Sr., and Frances Estelle Harris, an elementary schoolteacher. Because his family moved often, Conover attended many schools before graduating from Cambridge High School in Cambridge, Maryland, where the family settled when his father retired. He attended Salisbury State Teachers College in Salisbury, Maryland, in 1938, leaving after one year. He was married and divorced five times but had no children.

In 1939 Conover began working at WSAL, an AM radio station in Salisbury, as a writer and announcer. That same year he won an amateur announcing contest and was hired at WTBO-AM in Cumberland, Maryland, working until he was drafted into the army in 1942. He served as a technical sergeant at Fort George C. Meade in Maryland, interviewing recruits.

Beginning in 1944 Conover hosted a weekend jazz show at WWDC-AM in Washington, D.C., working at the station full-time after his army discharge in February 1946. He promoted jazz at clubs at the Howard Theatre in Washington, where he helped to desegregate the city by bringing together black and white musicians. He emceed the Band, a popular integrated jazz orchestra that could not play at segregated clubs.

In 1954 Conover applied to Voice of America (VOA), the radio station of the United States Information Agency (USIA), to host a jazz radio program. He was hired as an independent contractor, at his insistence, to retain control over the content of his programs. Initially, there was some opposition by some who felt that jazz was not appropriate music to export to (mostly) communist countries, but Conover saw jazz as the ultimate representation of American freedom, describing it as “a liberating kind of music… with the vitality and spirit that characterize our country at its best.” His first broadcast was on 6 January 1955. The two-hour show began with fifteen minutes of news, then forty-five minutes of popular music, followed by forty-five minutes of jazz. His signature opening was “This is Willis Conover in Washington, D.C, with the Voice of America Jazz Hour,” and the show’s theme song was Billy Stray-horn’s recording of Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Conover taped the shows using his own collection of about 60,000 records. From 1958 to 1960 Conover also worked for WCBS in New York City. Deciding that the VOA shows were more important, he gave up the higher paying WCBS job and moved to Washington. He also produced the VOA’s weekly show Music with Friends for broadcast in Poland. Over the years he interviewed all the jazz greats, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Erroll Garner, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Conover traveled to Brussels, Belgium, in 1958 to emcee American jazz concerts. In 1959 the USIA sent Conover on a five-week trip, beginning in Tunisia and including Norway and Poland. In all countries he was greeted by hundreds of adoring fans. He emceed the Newport Jazz Festival from 1951 to 1964 and hosted and produced numerous jazz concerts at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C, from 1969 to 1972; at Carnegie Hall in New York City; and for Public Television. He produced and emceed the New Orleans Jazz Festival (1969) and hosted or spoke at events in Istanbul, Turkey (1960); Moscow (1970); Oslo, Norway (1976); and Bombay, India (1978), among other places. On 29 April 1970 Conover arranged and hosted Duke Ellington’s seventieth birthday party at the White House. In the same year he received the Recording Industry Association of America’s annual cultural award. He served on the Jazz Panel (which he created) of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1968 to 1972. In 1977 he received the Order of Merit from the Polish Ministry of Culture for “outstanding contributions to Polish culture” and was honored again in 1991 by the Polish president Lech Walesa. He accompanied the first live American music tour of the Soviet Union in 1982.

In 1990 Conover was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he was a trustee and trustee emeritus. Berklee also established the Willis Conover Award for Excellence in Jazz Broadcasting. He was elected to the prestigious Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C, on 6 August 1991. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution praising Conover’s “unique and important contribution to the cause of international understanding and good will” and “for the unique contribution of Mr. Conover to expanding the understanding of American culture around the world through his thirty-eight years of jazz broadcast.” Conover received Down Beat’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. On the fortieth anniversary of Music USA Jazz Hour (1995), Conover traveled to Poland for a tribute concert.

Conover was an author as well as a jazz aficionado. From 1936 to 1938 he created and published Science-Fantasy Correspondent, a magazine with stories and articles about the science-fantasy genre. He wrote Lovecraft at Last in 1975, a memoir of his correspondence with the writer H. P. Lovecraft, which began when Conover was only fourteen years old. The book received a special professional award in 1976 from the World Fantasy Convention in New York City. He also wrote jazz reviews and profiles for the Saturday Review and wrote songs, poetry, and liner notes for many jazz recordings.

Conover’s famous smooth voice and impeccable slow diction, perfect for cutting through the static of short-wave radio, brought jazz to listeners in communist countries the world over, and many learned English from listening to the show. He played standard popular songs in the nonjazz portion of the show, but he disliked rock and roll music. He was virtually unknown in the United States, where it is illegal to broadcast VOA programs. He hated the label “disk jockey,” preferring to say, “I conduct a music show.” The pretaped shows usually revolved around a theme, with commentary from Conover. His legacy includes more than 15,000 tapes of his shows, which were rerun for about six months after his death. Enthusiastic fans, always there when he traveled abroad, saw Conover as America’s “greatest ambassador.” It would be hard to overestimate his influence on the estimated 30 million listeners in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (and as many as 100 million worldwide) that he introduced to jazz, including many working as musicians today. To quote Down Beat (1995): “If you had to identify a single voice… that has changed the course of jazz history, it would certainly be … Willis Conover.”

Conover, six feet tall with dark hair and black-framed eyeglasses, had throat cancer surgery and radiation therapy in 1985, but he continued working until shortly before his death. He died of lung cancer after two weeks at Alexandria Hospital in Alexandria. Conover’s ashes are in the Columbarium at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The VOA produced a memorial concert on 4 June 1996 in its Washington headquarters. Willis Conover was an intensely private man. His jazz friends and coworkers knew virtually nothing about his private life, and his family knew little about his professional life. Private even in death, the plaque at the Columbarium reads simply “Willis C. Conover, Jr., TSG USA 1920–1996.”

Conover’s tapes and papers are at the University of North Texas Music Library in Demon, Texas. The VOA and Berklee College of Music’s Office of Public Information have clipping files on Conover. Berklee’s Stan Getz Media Center and Library has cataloged many of the records with Conover’s liner notes. Some autobiographical material can be found in Lovecraft at Last (1975). Fred Bouchard wrote about Conover in September 1995 or Down Beat’s lifetime achievement award. Dave Burns’s article in World Monitor (Feb. 1993) was read into the Congressional Record, as was the Reader’s Digest article “The World’s Favorite American” (July 1985). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe (all 19 May 1996). Other obituaries are in the Miami Herald (20 May 1996), London Independent and Guardian (both 22 May 1996), and Down Beat (Aug. 1996).

Jane Brodsky Fitzpatrick