Thursday, April 29, 2010

Willis Conover Day: 25 April 2009

Willis Conover, the legendary VOA jazz broadcaster, was honored last year by a Congressional Resolution. According to the VOA press release that I was asked to write on that occasion, "Saturday, April 25, 2009, has been designated 'Willis Conover Day' by Resolution 324 of the 111th session of the U.S. Congress. Congressman John B. Larson (D-CT) submitted the resolution, which also states 'Whereas, on April 25, 2009, the Big Band Jam will honor the Voice of America and Willis Conover and the joint contribution toward spreading the language of jazz and American cultural diplomacy around the world over a span of more than 35 years.'

"Willis Conover, born in Buffalo, NY in 1920, joined the Voice of America (VOA) in 1955, hosting the first in a series of jazz programs that ultimately claimed tens of millions of listeners around the world—not the least behind the Iron Curtain. According to John Stevenson, currently Director of VOA's English Division, and as such, head of VOA music programming: 'At the height of his career, [Conover] was producing 17 shows per week, including Music USA, Jazz; Music USA, Standards; Music with Friends (one hour a week for the Polish Service and one hour for the Hungarian Service); and Willis Conover's House of Sounds for VOA Europe. These programs included interviews with popular Jazz artists including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and many, MANY more; literally hundreds.' When Stevenson visited Moscow some years ago, he found that the only American more famous that Willis Conover was Richard Nixon. Willis Conover died in 1996.

"The resolution is the result of efforts by Harry Schnipper, Executive Director of Washington’s Blues Alley, one of the nation’s most venerable jazz venues. Schnipper is the major moving force behind the Big Band JAM (for Jazz Appreciation Month in April), in whose series of concerts, more than three weeks long, Conover is being honored on April 25. The proclamation will be made at the commencement of a concert on the National Mall by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, under the musical direction of National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master David N. Baker. As Schnipper notes, “Music transcends every socioeconomic genre; jazz is the sound of freedom”—an oft-sounded sentiment—“and people used to say that Willis Conover singlehandedly felled the Iron Curtain.” According to Conover himself, “Every emotion—love, anger, joy, sadness—can be communicated with the vitality and spirit that characterize jazz and our country at its best. Which, of course, is the same freedom that people everywhere should enjoy.”

VOA's videographer and producer Mike Burke and I collaborated in a video feature (now on VOA's YouTube channel) on the concert Schnipper organized that day at the Sylvan Theater on the National Mall, which is noted here in observation of the one year anniversary of that occasion.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

And coming up . . . .

VOA has a wealth of musical talent, as well as musical knowledge, among its many employees and contractors.

I should explain that beginning two weeks ago I began an exhaustive survey of the eight Divisions and 44 Language Services of the Voice of America, looking both for active performers (music and dance), as well as those broadcasters involved in music programming, and the nature of the musical features they broadcast on radio and television. The immediate impetus was to line up a series of performers for VOA's annual Diversity Day on Wednesday, 5 May of this year (see flyer at left). That task is occupying a significant amount of my time, and will continue to do so until the program.

Those initial explorations of talents within VOA have brought exciting new discoveries, with some of them to be presented in the Diversity Day Talent Show. For the next few weeks, I'll be continuing to meet with musicians and music programmers throughout VOA, as part of an expansion of this blog, both in content and approach.

At the same time, I'll be undergoing training in a range of Web-related programs (html, Photoshop, Flash, etc.) to assist me in working with this expansion.

And finally, I've had the first of several meetings with the new Web Editor for VOA, and have begun discussions on possibilities for the development of a central presence on the VOA Website, which would bring together in one location the many fine VOA radio, television, and Web features.

The result is that for the next month I'll be posting rarely, if at all, in order to continue to pursue further contacts, consolidate my findings, and improve my Web programming skills. Thank you for your past interest, and I look forward to returning on 1 May with regular contributions on this site.