Willis Conover broadcasting with Voice of America in 1969
October 18, 1920|
Buffalo, New York
|Died||May 17, 1996
Willis Clark Conover, Jr. (October 18, 1920 – May 17, 1996) was a jazz producer and broadcaster on the Voice of America for over forty years. He produced jazz concerts at the White House, the Newport Jazz Festival, and for movies and television. By arranging concerts where people of all races were welcome, he is credited with desegregating Washington D.C. nightclubs. Conover is credited with keeping interest in jazz alive in the countries of Eastern Europe through his nightly broadcasts during the Cold War.
As a young man Conover was interested in science fiction, and published a science fiction fanzine, Science Fantasy Correspondent. This brought him into contact with horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. The correspondence between Lovecraft, who was at the end of his life, and the young Conover, has been published as Lovecraft at Last (Carrolton-Clark, 1975; reprint 2004).
Conover's father had intended for him to attend The Citadel and follow his family's tradition of military service. Instead, he attended the Maryland State Teacher's College at Salisbury, Maryland, and became a radio announcer for WTBO in Cumberland, Maryland.
He later moved to Washington, D.C., and focused on jazz in his programming, especially the Duke Ellington hour on Saturday nights. His guests on this program and Saturday morning shows included many important artists, such as Boyd Raeburn.
Voice of America
Conover came to work at the Voice of America, and eventually became a legend among jazz lovers, primarily due to the hour-long program on the Voice of America called Voice of America Jazz Hour. Known for his sonorous baritone voice, many would argue that he was the most important presenter on Voice of America. His slow delivery and the use of scripts written in "special English" made his programmes more widely accessible and he is said to have become the first teacher of English to a whole generation of East European jazz lovers. Conover was not well known in the United States, even among jazz aficionados, as the Voice of America did not broadcast domestically except on shortwave, but his visits to Eastern Europe and Soviet Union brought huge crowds and star treatment for him. On a trip to Moscow a taxi driver recognized him by his distinctive deep-toned voice. He was a celebrity figure in the Soviet Union, where jazz was very popular and the Voice of America was a prime source of information as well as music.
In 1956, Conover conducted a series of interviews with jazz luminaries like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, and Art Tatum. His interview with Tatum was is noted as "the only known in-depth recorded interview with the pianist". These interviews were selected by the Library of Congress as a 2010 addition to the National Recording Registry, which selects recordings annually that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
He died of lung cancer. He had been a smoker for 57 years.
- Thomas, Jr., Robert McG. (May 19, 1996). "Willis Conover, 75, Voice of America Disc Jockey". New York Times. p. 35. Retrieved December 12, 2010.
- "Willis Conover Is Dead at 75; Aimed Jazz at the Soviet Bloc", By ROBERT McG. THOMAS Jr., New York Times, May 19, 1996. Retrieved February 4, 2010.
- Alexei Yurchak, Everything was forever, Until it was no more : The last Soviet Generation, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2006, pp. 180 – 181.
- "The National Recording Registry 2010". Library of Congress. Retrieved April 10, 2011.
- "Willis of Oz", by James Lester, Central Europe Review, Vol 1, No 5; July 26, 1999. Retrieved February 4, 2010.
- Willis Conover: Broadcasting Jazz To The World by Terence M. Ripmaster, iUniverse Publishing, 2007
- Find-A-Grave profile for Willis Conover
- Article about Willis Conover from the Voice of America web site
- Willis Conover introduces a band of jazz musicians during a live performance
- Willis Conover tells his story
- Voices of Freedom: A Celebration of VOA Jazz and Willis Conover
- Farber, Gary (June 29, 2008). "If It Ain't Got That Swing". Amygdala. – Web article about Conover's interest in science fiction and fantasy, including his correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft]
- The Willis Conover Collection at the University of North Texas
- Conover's Coming Over: Willis Conover and Jazz at the Voice of America (NPR program)