Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Willis Conover Day 2009 revisited

Willis Conover, the legendary VOA jazz broadcaster, was honored three years ago today 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 on a video on the concert Schnipper organized that day at the Sylvan Theater on the National Mall, which video follows this blog entry.

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