Tag Archives: Willis Conover

WUNC on Jazz: “America’s Coolest Weapon During The Cold War”

Willis Conover, The Voice of America (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(Source: WUNC’s The State of Things via Kim Elliott)

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.

Host Frank Stasio talks to Hugo Berkeley, director of the new documentary “The Jazz Ambassadors: The Untold Story of America’s Coolest Weapon in the Cold War.” Historian Adriane Lentz-Smith joins the conversation to put the story of the jazz ambassadors into context. Lentz-Smith is a professor of history at Duke University who served as an advisor to the documentary. She’s also the author of “Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I” (Harvard University Press/2011). “The Jazz Ambassadors” screens at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham on Sunday, April 8.[…]

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From the UNT Digital Library: Music USA as heard in Lagos, Nigeria in 1959

Transoceanic-Dial

Many thanks to UNT Archivist, Maristella Feustle, who shares the following set of recordings she recently published in the UNT Digital Library Willis Conover collection.

The description reads:

“A broadcast of Music USA transmitted by station WLWO in Cincinnati, Ohio, and recorded off of shortwave radio in Lagos, Nigeria. It was sent to the Voice of America to document the quality of radio reception in that area. As a live broadcast, the recording also includes news breaks and station identification.”

I should add that you might also hear ambient sounds from Lagos if you listen carefully! Click on the links below to listen  to the recording sets via the UNT Digital Library:

Part 1:

http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc824409/m1/

Part 2:

http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc824410/

Thanks again, Maristella, for all of your work to preserve and share these valuable recordings! 

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UNT Archives publish Willis Conover interview with Louis Armstrong

(Photo source: Inside VOA)

(Photo source: Inside VOA)

Thanks to the endeavors of Maristella Feustle at the UNT Music Library, five hours of recently-restored Louis Armstrong interviews with Willis Conover are now online and free to download/listen.

Kudos to the UNT archives for making these amazing recordings so accessible! What a treasure trove.

Click here to view links to all five hours of recordings at the UNT Archives’ website.

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The UNT Willis Conover Archive is now online

Willis Conover, The Voice of America (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Regular SWLing Post readers know that I’m a huge fan of the late Willis Conover. I just learned, via the Arts Journal blog, about an amazing collection of Conover audio archives that are now being shared online:

“The music program at the University of North Texas has graduated hundreds of jazz artists who went on to successful careers as professionals.[…]

Under Maristella Feustle of the university’s library, there is an archive devoted to the late Willis Conover of the Voice of America[…]. Conover’s VOA programs sent jazz around the world. For a quarter of a century he was one of the nation’s most valuable cultural diplomats. As of today, parts of the Conover archive are online and open to the public, thanks to a grant from the Grammy Foundation.[…]”

Click here to read the full Arts Journal article.

Many thanks, Maristella, for championing and finding funds for the Willis Conover archive!

Click here to browse the list of recordings and listen to the tapes via the UNT Digital Library.

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The WSJ features Willis Conover

Willis Conover, The Voice of America (Source: Wikimedia Commons)(Source: Wall Street Journal via Any Sennitt)

The Radio Broadcaster Who Fought the Cold War Abroad but Remained Unheard at Home

By DOUG RAMSEY

During the Cold War, listeners in captive nations behind the Iron Curtain huddled around radios in basements and attics listening to the imposing bass-baritone voice of the man who sent them American music. His greeting—“Good evening, Willis Conover in Washington, D.C., with Music U.S.A.”—was familiar to millions around the world. At home, relatively few people knew him or his work. A proposal for a postage stamp honoring Conover may give hope to those who want the late Voice of America broadcaster to be awarded a larger mark of distinction.

For 40 years, until shortly before his death in 1996, Conover’s shortwave broadcasts on the Voice of America constituted one of his country’s most effective instruments of cultural diplomacy. Never a government employee, to maintain his independence he worked as a freelance contractor. With knowledge, taste, dignity and no tinge of politics, he introduced his listeners to jazz and American popular music. He interviewed virtually every prominent jazz figure of the second half of the 20th century. His use of the VOA’s “special English”—simple vocabulary and structures spoken at a slow tempo—made him, in effect, a teacher of the language to his listeners.

Countless musicians from former Iron Curtain countries have credited Conover with attracting them to jazz, among them the Czech bassists George Mraz and Miroslav Vitous, the Cuban saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera and the Russian trumpeter Valery Ponomarev. On the Conover Facebook page established in 2010, Ponomarev wrote that Conover had done as much for jazz “as Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.” Conover’s New York Times obituary said, “In the long struggle between the forces of Communism and democracy, Mr. Conover, who went on the air in 1955 . . . proved more effective than a fleet of B-29’s.” In his publication Gene Lees Jazzletter, the influential critic wrote, “Willis Conover did more to crumble the Berlin Wall and bring about the collapse of the Soviet Empire than all the Cold War presidents put together.”[…]

Continue reading at the Wall Street Journal…

Regular SWLing Post readers know that I’m a huge fan of Willis Conover. Much like VOA’s Leo Sarkisian, Conover represented some of the best diplomacy this country has had to offer. [I’ve actually had the honor of meeting and interviewing Leo Sarkisian at his home in Maryland, a few years ago–one of the highlights of my career.]

Are there any SWLing Post readers out there who listened to Willis Conover from behind the “Iron Curtain?” Please comment!

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