Today is “Willis Conover Day” by congressional proclamation honoring the legendary Voice of America jazz program host who introduced America’s musicians to listeners behind the Iron Curtain and around the world. Conover will be honored during the “Big Band Jam” on the National Mall.
“People used to say that Willis Conover single-handedly felled the Iron Curtain,” said Harry Schnipper, major organizer of the Jam. The jam helps educate students about America’s jazz heritage and brings jazz bands to Washington, D.C.
The congressional resolution, sponsored by Rep. John B. Larson, D-Conn., recognizes VOA and Conover for their “joint contribution toward spreading the language of jazz and American cultural diplomacy around the world over a span of more than 35 years.”
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1920, Conover joined the VOA in 1955, hosting the first in a series of jazz programs that ultimately claimed millions of listeners round the world.
“At the height of his career, [Conover] was producing 17 shows per week, including Music USA, Jazz; Music USA, Standards; Music with Friends, and Willis Conover’s House of Sounds. These programs included interviews with popular artists including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and many, many more,” said John Stevenson, chief of VOA English.
“Every emotion – love, anger, joy, sadness – can be communicated with the vitality and spirit that characterize jazz,” Conover once said. He died in 1996.
The Voice of America, which first went on the air in 1942, is a multimedia international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. Government through the Broadcasting Board of Governors. VOA broadcasts approximately 1,500 hours of news, information, educational, and cultural programming every week to an estimated worldwide audience of more than 134 million people. Programs are produced in 45 languages.