Unknown Heroes: Willis Conover and the Voice of America Jazz Hour

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Willis Conover, an American radio host and producer not well known here, is a giant to jazz fans living under dictatorships where jazz was the forbidden American fruit and was banned from the airwaves.  He worked for the Voice of America.  He was a great educator and purveyor of musical freedom.  He changed countless lives behind the iron curtain.

During the cold war, Willis Conover hosted a program called The Voice of America Jazz Hour.  It was broadcast to the former Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, the Baltic countries (Lituania, Estonia, Latvia), and last but not least, Cuba.

Over the past 30 years I’ve interviewed a lot of people who tuned into his program:  Bulgarian pianist Milcho Leviev, Polish pianist Adam Makowicz and singer Urszula Dudziak, Russian cellist Alex Rubinstein and trumpeter Valery Ponomarev, and others.  They all spoke of their indebtedness to Conover for exposing American jazz when it was not tolerated in the countries they lived in.

But it was only the other day that I learned that American jazz was also banned in Cuba, and the only way Cuban musicians and fans could hear it was to listen at 11 p.m. each night to the VOA Jazz Hour with Willis Conover.

The person who told me this was Orlando “Maraca” Valle, a supremely gifted flute player from Havana.  At an early age, people commented on his pleasing voice, and it was suggested he maybe learn the flute.  He was around 10 years old and the only flute he could get was a cheap, beat-up old Selmer.  He wasn’t allowed to play jazz on it so he played nothing but classical in school for ten years.  He is one of the best jazz flute players I have ever heard, equaling and maybe even surpassing even the high bar of flutists like Hubert Laws and Dave Valentin.  His classical chops are also virtuosic.  The man can do anything.  His first exposure to jazz was via Conover’s VOA Jazz Hour program, which he stayed up until 11 p.m. to listen.  He had to get up @ 5 a.m. to go to music school where he studied only classical music.  He never minded the lack of sleep, and, like many musicians, credits Conover with changing his life.

I met Willis Conover at a conference a few years ago.  He was sitting at a table over in the corner all by himself, smoking a cigarette.  Few people seemed to know who he was. I told him how many times musicians from the former Soviet Union I interviewed had praised his work.  He smiled and thanked me.  It’s a shame he isn’t better known here, but, as they say, no man’s a hero in his hometown.

Here is Conover with the standard intro to his VOA program.


also this tribute:


Conover also hosted television programs: