May 19, 1996
Willis Conover, the Voice of America disc jockey who fought the Cold War with cool music, capturing the hearts and liberating the spirits of millions of listeners trapped behind the Iron Curtain, died on Friday at a hospital in Alexandria, Va. He was 75 and lived in Washington.
Colleagues said the cause was lung cancer.
In the long struggle between the forces of Communism and democracy, Conover, who went on the air in 1955 and who continued broadcasting until a few months ago, proved more effective than a fleet of B-29s.
No wonder. Six nights a week he would rev up the Strayhorn, put Ellington on the wing and take the A Train straight into the Communist heartland.
As the appealing rumble of the familiar theme rolled over the airwaves, from East Berlin to Vladivostok, millions of people would fine-tune their radio dials, knowing what was coming next: a sugary, slow-talking baritone announcing, "This is Willis Conover in Washington, D.C., with the Voice of America Jazz Hour."
For the next two hours Conover would bombard Budapest with Billy Taylor, strafe Poland with Oscar Peterson and drop John Coltrane on Moscow.
To Americans who listened to jazz routinely, or disliked it, the wide popularity of the music in lands where it was officially labeled as decadent might seem incomprehensible.
It was, as Conover liked to say, "the music of freedom," and to those who had no freedom it became such a symbol of hope that at the peak of the cold war it was estimated that Conover had 30 million regular listeners in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and as many as 100 million worldwide.
He was known as the most famous American that virtually no American had ever heard of. By law the Voice of America broadcasts that made him a household name throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America could not be beamed to the United States.
Conover, a tall, angular man with black-rimmed glasses who combed his jet-black hair straight back, came to his career through a series of accidents.
An Army brat, he was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and attended two dozen schools. Conover was a college freshman in Salisbury, Md., when a guest appearance on a local radio station led to an eight-week job.
Wanting to become a radio announcer, he won an amateur contest that led to a job in Cumberland, Md., where he made the discovery of his life. By chance he heard a recording of Charlie Barnet's "Cherokee" and was so enchanted that he went to a local record store looking for similar music.
The store owner, seeing his selections, said, "You really like that jazz, don't you?" and Conover replied, "What's jazz?"
By the time he was drafted into the Army in 1942 and started hanging out at a USO canteen near the White House, he knew enough to know that the syrupy strings of Andre Kostelanetz, which the society volunteers were playing on the record player, was no music to dance to.
When Conover rummaged through the stack of records and came up with some Dorseys and Arte Shaw, one of the hostesses was so impressed with the clientele's reaction to the music that she introduced Conover to her husband, a radio-station manager. Within a few years Conover was a popular local disc jockey with the only jazz program in the city.
He also arranged concerts and almost offhandedly brought about the desegregation of Washington's nightclubs.
When Duke Ellington made his famous tour of the Soviet Union in 1954 and Voice of America officials decided to start a jazz program, Conover was the natural choice.
There were immediate grumblings in Congress about wasting taxpayers' money by broadcasting frivolous music, but Conover, a scholar who discussed music and interviewed musicians but never mentioned politics, won the day. In 1993 the House of Representatives honored him with a resolution praising the man who had been called one of the country's greatest foreign-policy tools.
An independent-minded man, Conover had his share of run-ins with Voice of America officials over the years but never backed down. As an independent contractor, he had full contractual control over his programming choices, and besides, he had listened to too much jazz to do things any way but his own.
Conover, who was divorced, is survived by a brother, Walter, and a sister, Elizabeth Davison.
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:39 EDT