During the Cold War, the U.S. Department of State sent jazz musicians around the world to sell the American way of life. This initiative took place in the 1950s, during segregation and the beginning of the civil rights movement. Jazz was gaining popularity on the international stage partly because of a Voice of America program hosted by Willis Conover, and partly because jazz musicians, like Louis Armstrong, played international tours.
The U.S. government took note of this popularity and decided to send musicians as representatives of the country, even as those representatives didn’t have the full benefits of the freedom they were touting. Many of these multi-racial, multi-gender groups were not allowed to perform within the boundaries of the United States due to Jim Crow.
The Voice of America provided Cuban jazz trumpeter, pianist and composer, Arturo Sandoval with a source of inspiration through Jazz. In a recent interview with NPR, Sandoval stated:
“We used to listen every day, every single day, [to] Voice of America. [It] was a shortwave radio program, and they play everything in jazz music. That was the only way we have to hear that kind of music and to be connected with the music we love. I was in the obligatory military service for three years when the sergeant [caught] me listen[ing] to the Voice of America, and then they put me in jail because I was listening to the voice of enemies.”
David Goren, Shortwaveology author and producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center, released a JazzStories Podcast today featuring VOA broadcaster, Willis Conover. Willis Conover is a noted name in both Jazz music and international broadcasting. His characteristic deep and articulate voice guided many shortwave listeners behind the iron curtain, into the realm of Jazz music.
During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the United States had a secret weapon: Willis Conover’s “Jazz Hour,” carried on the shortwave radio signals of The Voice of America across Russia and Eastern Europe:. Starting in 1955 and running for over forty years, ‘Jazz Hour’ nurtured generations of jazz musicians who grew up under the restrictions of Communism. On this edition of Jazz Stories we hear Willis Conover and two outstanding jazz musicians, Czech bassist George Mraz and Russian trumpeter Valery Ponomarev – both of whom learned about jazz from his broadcasts.