Willis Conover was known around the world, but not so much at home. He was the voice of jazz over the Voice of America for more than 40 years, most of it during the Cold War.
Imagine what it was like to sit in the dark of a hushed room in Prague, Moscow or Warsaw in the 1960s, fiddle with the dial of a shortwave radio, slide over crackles, pops, and jamming, to finally find the opening notes of “The A Train” and a rich baritone intoning slowly through the static, “Good evening. Willis Conover with Music USA … ”
He played the Count, the Duke, and Satchmo, Dizzy, Miss Sarah Vaughan and Charlie Parker.
I remember asking East Berliners in the early 1990s, “Where did you learn such excellent English?” They didn’t say the name of any movie, rock star or statesman, just: “Villis Conover.”
Jan Zappner, the Czech jazz accordion player, told Terence Ripmaster, who wrote a Conover biography, that when he was a soldier in the Czech army, “Private radios were not allowed, so … every night at ten o’clock, I sneaked through the toilet window into the communications building, where there was a shortwave radio on which I tuned in the Voice of America.”