The White House has yet to award a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to Willis Conover. But there has been progress toward that goal. I was delighted to learn when I got off the road this week that Congress proclaimed April 25 Willis Conover Day. He was honored during celebrations on the National Mall. Finally, his nation has given official recognition to the Voice Of America broadcaster who sent jazz to the world and, without indulging in propaganda or politics, helped to end the Cold War. Here is part of one of many Rifftides items about Conover.
Through most of the cold war, Conover was the host of Music USA on the Voice of America. He was never a government employee, always working under a free lance contract to maintain his independence. While our leaders and those of the Soviet bloc stared one another down across the nuclear abyss, in his stately bass-baritone voice Willis introduced listeners around the world to jazz and American popular music. With knowledge, taste, dignity and no trace of politics, he played for nations of captive peoples the music of freedom. He interviewed virtually every prominent jazz figure of the second half of the twentieth century. Countless Eastern European musicians give him credit for bringing them into jazz. Because the Voice is not allowed to broadcast to the United States, Conover was unknown to the citizens of his own country. For millions behind the iron curtain he was an emblem of America, democracy and liberty. Gene Lees makes the case, to which I subscribe wholeheartedly, that,
...Willis Conover did more to crumble the Berlin wall and bring about collapse of the Soviet Empire than all the Cold War presidents put together.
Below is a video broadcast in Russian following a Washington, DC, concert in the fall of 2007, honoring Conover's memory. It gives us a glimpse of Willis at work in his VOA studio not long before his death in 1996. As a direct result of listening to Conover's VOA programs, the players in the concert all developed as jazz musicians behind the iron curtain. They are Paquito D'Rivera, alto saxophone (Cuba); Valery Ponomarev, trumpet (Soviet Union); Milcho Leviev, piano (Bulgaria); George Mraz, bass (Czechoslovakia); Horacio Hernandez, drums (Cuba). The piece is Ellington's Take the 'A' Train," the theme music for Conover's Music USA.
This gathering of world-class artists inspired by Conover to become jazz musiciains expresses more powerfully than any congressional resolution his contribution to US cultural diplomacy. Still, that presidential Medal of Freedom is long overdue.