April 30th, International Jazz Day, Marks 8th Annual Celebration of Jazz across the Globe
Willis Conover (1920-1996) was a renowned jazz connoisseur and host of VOA’s Jazz Hour, which premiered in 1955 during the early years of the Cold War and spanned four decades. To commemorate his legacy and the vibrant history behind the global embrace of jazz music, VOA will pay tribute to Willis Conover with an hour-long program on the VOA1 24-hour music stream airing at 1600UTC. The program features performances by jazz greats including Billy Taylor, Joe Williams, Charlie Byrd, and Keter Betts recorded during a 1996 memorial concert for Conover.
In recognition of April as Jazz Appreciation Month, VOA is also presenting The Willis Conover Jazz Concert on April 27th at the VOA headquarters in Washington, D.C. The performance is in the Cohen Auditorium from 1:00p.m. to 2:30 p.m., featuring locally-based performers the Steve Washington Quintet.
Conover began Jazz Hour at a time when the United States and the former Soviet Union were largely embroiled in Cold War tensions. Most of the population behind the Iron Curtain faced severe limitations on the news or radio programs they could access. Conover’s program gave listeners a glimpse into American popular culture and western music. Moreover, the insights into U.S. life gleaned through his interviews with musicians and hearing their vibrant music discredited the false and negative anti-American propaganda that was regularly churned out by the Soviet. According to his 1996 obituary in The New York Times it is estimated that at the height of his career as host of Jazz Hour, Conover had roughly 30 million followers in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This number triples in size when tallying his worldwide audience.
In a statement about International Jazz Day, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared that the Day is meant to “highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe.” Conover’s legacy and his role in serving as a cultural bridge between the United States and the people of the former Soviet Union and other nations is a reminder of how something as apolitical as music can still have impact and serve as “one of the country’s greatest foreign policy tools” (The New York Times).
Although Willis Conover passed away in May 1996, he is still well-remembered at VOA. His legacy and decades of contributions towards jazz and the Voice of America are celebrated on International Jazz Day and through events like The Willis Conover Jazz Concert.