Obituary: Willis Conover
Wednesday 22 May 1996
From 1955 until a few weeks ago, Conover's Music USA Jazz Hour was a highlight of the English-language programming on the United States' government- funded radio station. Conover's broadcasts attracted a particular following in the Soviet bloc, where there had long been an interest in jazz. Beyond this he won a whole generation of new listeners, who tuned in despite official attempts to jam the signal. The crackly tapes of his programmes on the great jazz musicians became prized, if po-litically dangerous, possessions.
From his first visit to Poland in 1959, US government officials were consistently astonished by the ecstatic welcome he received in the eastern bloc. A survey in the 1970s found that, after Richard Nixon, Conover was the best-known American in the Soviet Union. The US Cultural Affairs Attache in Moscow during the Khrushchev years noted that young Russians not only listened to Conover, they also spoke English in an imitation of him.
Even at the height of the Cold War Conover resisted all attempts to politicise his programme. He claimed that the music alone carried America's message to the world. In Jazz Forum in 1988 he wrote:
Jazz is a classical parallel to our
American political and social system. We agree in advance on the laws and customs we abide by and, having reached agreement, we are free to do whatever we wish within these constraints. It's the same with jazz. The musicians agree the key, the harmonic changes, the tempo and the duration of the piece. Within those guidelines, they are free to play what they want. And when people in other countries hear that quality in the music, it stimulates a need for the same freedom in the conduct of their lives.
Conover also expressed the hope that jazz, being a product of a mix of ethnic groups, traditions and experiences, might show the United States as a melting-pot of opportunity. He knew from his tangles with segregation laws during his earlier career as a jazz promoter that the African-American exponents of jazz whom he managed faced all manner of obstacles. In an era of monumental prejudice, he believed that black American voices and music had something to say to the world and belonged on the Voice of America. Conover was no less eager to help those struggling to play jazz elsewhere in the world. He assisted the career of the Polish pianist Adam Makowicz, and in the 1970s he arranged for the broadcast of King Kong, a black South African jazz opera about segregation, and interviewed its star, Miriam Makeba.
Conover had little time for his critics, whether Congressmen who felt that broadcasting jazz debased world opinion of American culture or those who, like the phone-in host Larry King, accused him of being a propagandist. When a caller to King's programme took up this theme and asked Conover how he felt about broadcasting for a "CIA-dominated propaganda agency", he replied with a limerick entitled "Marxochists":
Though they claim they're exceed-
At the way that our streets are
And they're somewhat abrupt,
Since they feel we're corrupt -
Still, they seldom defect to the East.
In order to protect his political neutrality, Conover declin-ed a permanent contract with the VOA, and hence had no US government pension. His personal life was turbulent, with five marriages ending in divorce, including his last to an ex-listener from China. Throughout his battle with cancer he continued to broadcast his beloved jazz. Yet, despite a Presidential citation in 1983 and numerous honours from the world of jazz, Conover died virtually unknown in his own country.
Owing to a 1948 Act of Congress, designed to protect the American public from their government's own "propaganda", the music, commentary and hard news of Voice of America cannot be heard in the United States. Today, as the Voice of America and the BBC World Service face an uncertain future, Conover's career stands as a timely reminder of the power of international broadcasting to touch ordinary lives around the globe.
Nicholas J. Cull
Willis Conover, broadcaster: born Buffalo, New York 18 December 1920; married five times; died Alexandria, Virginia 17 May 1996.
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