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Conover, VOA's jazz presenter, with Duke Ellington. Picture from Jazzebel's personal collection

Feature

The authentic voice of America and jazz

Willis Conover, VOA's jazz presenter, died four years ago on May 17. This is a tribute to the man who presented jazz with so much passion that he became a cult figure himself



Among my most treasured memorabilia is a photograph of Duke Ellington and Willis Conover. It was sent to me by the office of Willis Conover at the VOA in Washington DC around the year 1983, when I first bought a radio.

I'd written to Conover in an effort to settle a ten-rupee bet I took (with a slippery character) that the signature tune of his Voice of America Jazz Hour, also Duke Ellington's theme, was Take the 'A' Train. The slippery character claimed it wasn't and, saying he had the record at home, offered to check it. Since he didn't do so, I had to write to Conover in desperation to settle the issue.

I got a letter from one of his assistants saying I was right: it had always been Take the 'A' Train, right from 1946 or so when the programme first started. I got a brief printed write-up about the programme and the photograph as a bonus to confirmation of winning the bet.

At that time the only three names I knew in jazz were Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Four if one includes Conover. After three years of listening to the programme every evening I acquired a tiny portable two-in-one from a friend, started buying cassettes, and also recording some of the VOA Jazz Hour broadcasts.

Reagan's propaganda

By this time Ronald Reagan had decided to cut the Jazz Hour to once a week and substitute it with anti-communist propaganda for "crucial" areas of the world such as Asia. But those recordings and the help of a friend with his record collection got me a start in trying to know jazz as well as I'd loved it for 20 years of occasional listening on my parents' radio during vacation visits.

Conover, whose voice I loved as a friend, died of cancer on May 17, 1996. He was irreplaceable on the Jazz Hour, which continued with recordings of old programmes from his archives for a year or a bit more, after which the programme along with most other music programmes was dumped for interminable sessions of "analytical" news.

I had a premonition of his death a few months earlier, when his voice sounded very tired. Inexplicably, it perked up again, but that was because of repeat broadcasts, I realised. In fact, soon after that the VOA started a series called The History of Jazz in America, which Conover had pieced together from his Jazz Hour archives before he got seriously ill and went into hospital. The broadcasts of the series outlasted him.

Cult broadcaster

Conover would perhaps have described himself as a broadcaster rather than a jazz critic. For all the nearly 50 years of his programme he selected every record himself. Before that he had established himself in New York and at one time commuted between that metropolis and the capital to present local and international jazz programmes. His influence was already tremendous by the early '50s. A Washington band wanted to name themselves after him, so he settled to let them call it 'The Orchestra presented by Willis Conover'.

Yet, as I surmise, when he came to New York in the early '40s (he must have been about 25) he was unknown and close to resourceless. "Let's see", he recalled thinking and dipping into his pocket when he wanted to walk into a club where Peggy Lee was singing with the Benny Goodman orchestra. He found he had just enough money for the price of admission.

This must have been the germ of his career. And it was perhaps five to eight years before he started the world's most famous jazz programme. It was the only one that people like me in India switched the VOA on for, and one that many in Eastern Europe later recalled having thought of as personifying the voice of freedom for them in preference to anything else from the US.

It must have been the '50s or '60s when Conover got a phone call from someone called Eubie Blake while he was broadcasting a local jazz programme in New York. "You don't know me, Mr Conover," Blake said, "but I want to know who's that youngster whose music you're playing." Blake ended the conversation with the words, "Well, you just go on playing all that good stuff, Willis," but in the meantime Conover had surprised him by saying, "I know you, Mr Blake. Memories of you, I'm Wild about Harry...'' Soon enough Blake's second career had started, thanks to Conover. One of its landmarks was the New Orleans International Jazz Festival in 1969. Blake jokingly complained that Conover had pulled him out of peaceful retirement, but he kept working till close to his 100th birthday in 1983, soon after which he died.

Others got their first career going after he discovered them. The blues and jazz singer Ruth Brown, who shared in the VOA's star-studded hour-long tribute to him on his death, was one such. She was put onto him by a friend who called Conover from a public telephone and said, "I want you to meet and listen to this young lady."

Conover was the presenter of choice for special jazz occasions, from festivals to private concerts at the White House. He was there with Jimmy Carter in 1977 for a concert featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan, and during the Nixon tenancy for an all-star concert for Duke Ellington's 70th birthday in 1969.

One-in-a-million voice

His personal friendships with great jazz musicians came through in his broadcasts, many of which had excerpts from interviews with them, especially Duke Ellington. An interview I remember well was with the blind English-born pianist George Shearing. He complimented Shearing for having recognised his laugh in a 5,000-strong audience during a concert in Washington DC and saying "Thank you, Willis." Of course Shearing's hearing was keener for his being blind, and of course Conover's rich baritone voice was one in a million, not just 5,000, as Shearing implied in his reply, as gracious as Conover's compliment.

Ellington was Conover's favourite jazz musician -- that was obvious from the many programmes he devoted to him and from his adoption of Ellington's theme tune as his own. But the high regard he had for modern jazz musicians, from the be-bop heroes Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to the pioneer of many styles, Miles Davis and the intense John Coltrane, also shone through. He ended one memorable broadcast on Parker with the words, "Charlie Parker. The greatest alto saxophonist and one of the most original jazz musicians of all time."

In fact all jazz was an organic unity to Conover. That may be one reason why he was partial to the young trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who believes in rediscovering the roots of classic jazz, Dixieland and swing. As Conover said, "Jazz is the only form of music that one can appreciate with the feet, the heart and the head," and any jazz that blended these three aspects with whatever individual degrees of emphasis was true.

Conover indeed recognised the place of jazz within modern American popular music even as it has a distinct identity. In a separate programme called Music USA Standards, he used to play great hits of popular American music, some of them in jazz versions. The most popular bandleader of the swing era, Glenn Miller, often found a place in that programme but only once did he figure in the Jazz Hour -- a recognition that his music didn't have the creativity of jazz. And yet to Conover good music was good irrespective of the label. So too was it to his hero Ellington, who in any case preferred the label "Negro folk music" and once asked in exasperation, "Why should this thing called jazz be bigger than me!"

Jazzebel



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