Monday, 18 May 2009

Willis Conover... The Voice of America

ONE of the greatest and most popular broadcasters the world ever knew was Willis Conover who died eleven years ago in May 1998. For over 50 years, he dominated the airwaves and was heard in all countries of the world, presenting “Voice of America Jazz Hour” which was often preceded by “Music USA.” It was a daily programme that often began from 12 midnight.
Despite the awkward time that this broadcast was aired, millions of jazz fans and devotees kept faith with Conover as he discussed jazz from its New Orleans beginnings of Louis Armstrong and mainstream era of Duke Ellingion and Jimmy Lunceford through to the modern and avantgarde of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.
Conover’s demise dealt a significant blow on the propagation of jazz as an art form because since his death, the world lost the regular flow of jazz information that came from Voice of America studios every day through a man who was profoundly knowledgeable about the subject, an encyclopaedia and a scholar of contemporary music. With Conover on the air, it was not completely necessary for jazz fans to thirst for Downbeat, Jazz Times, Jazzwise, Jazz Journal and all the magazines that weekly publicised the activities of jazz. These magazines only had the advantage of the publication imprint in terms of providing the public with a permanent record of events, with photographs that helped to drive the stories home.
But transient though the broadcast medium that we listened to was, the teeming listeners to Voice of America Jazz Hour while it lasted, were greeted by the pleasant and friendly voice of Mr. Conover himself whose deliberate style of presentation made it possible for all the overseas countries who were not too versed in English language to fully understand the import and message of his presentations. He was a virtuoso who kept the whole world awake and alive at night.

Art music such as jazz and classical music have traditionally been consigned to the non-listening belts of broadcasting because they are regarded as minority programmes. As opposed to popular music programmes, which appeal to the general public only a few people, a small section of the community, have continued to listen to these art music forms. Maybe, the time has come to reverse this long standing trend, judging by the impact that Conover made on listeners all over the world, and the negative effect the stoppage of the programme as a result of his absence has had on the evolution and development of jazz all over the world.
I am of the opinion that broadcast managers should now begin to rethink their approach to the scheduling of art music, especially jazz. The music should now be pushed to peak listening periods where more people can listen to it; and I am sure that with time, many listeners would be won to jazz as its passionate aficionados.
Actually, the effect of this move would be spiral and far-reaching. It would change the orientation of musicians who cannot presently see beyond the hip hop and rap level. Even the artistes who are currently involved in such mainstream music as highlife, Afrobeat and juju would see the need for improving themselves as musicians, not just entertainers.
They would realise the need to play an instrument in order to widen the scope of their musical horizon in preparation for lasting careers. Even as singers, listening to the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, and Kevin Mahogumy who are some of today’s jazz singers; and veterans Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone and Lou Rawls would greatly improve their vocal chords to the extent of taking them to higher levels of creativity.

Besides, the presentation style of Willis Conover would be experienced and imbibed by a generation of presenters who have now been deluded into believing that the more music less talk approach to presentation is an ideal option. If they have not been sufficiently exposed to the load of information that characterised Rick Dee’s Top 40 count down, they would greatly feel the need to ‘talk’ if they heard jazz presentations regularly.
Even the jazz programmes that some of us, including Lindsay Barret and O.J. Nanna presented in the form of Stereo Jazz Club and NBC Jazz Club from the 60s to the 90s inspired a good number of Nigerian musicians across Nigeria and Ghana – who have continued to be grateful to us and the programmes for their professional development, especially the way these programmes exposed them to various instruments and eventually moulded their careers. This story is not about broadcasting and West African musicians. Even though the digression is relevant, it is all about the inimitable Willis Conover, the man who endeared himself to the whole world as a great jazz presenter on the global airwaves for over 50 years.
Conover had fan clubs wherever the United States Information Service had presence all over the world, and was celebrated rather than the musician themselves for the impact he made.
On account of his programme, my own fan club of the 60s called “Friends of Music USA” met regularly to discuss jazz and answer some of the quizzes that Conover posed on “Jazz Hour.” It was for his sake that for many years, I received free copies of Downbeat magazine as President of a chapter of Music USA.
Conover was not just a presenter of jazz on radio, he was a jazz educator. He travelled with almost all the top jazz musicians and was present at most of the recordings. As a result, when he spoke, he did so from residual experience, a wealth of first had knowledge that was authoritative. When Duke Ellington died in 1974, Conover ran programmes on the Duke, the first jazz musician to perform at the whitehouse. Not only did he trace the stories of Caravan, Mood Indigo, Take the A train and others from their compositional stages to rehearsals, he also discussed the mood and attitude that charactised their recordings.
When Coltrane died in 1967, Conover demystified avant garde by developing the story of Coltrane’s saxophone from the conventional level that Charlie Parker created through to the modal experience Coltrane garnered from the Miles Davis Sextet of 1959 in Kind of Blue. Conover was a teacher.
As presenter of the nightly Jazz Hour, which was acknowledged all over the world, Conover was more popular than the musicians whose music he reviewed. Conover was also held in higher esteem than the critics of that period, and his views were greatly respected.
Leonard Feather, Alun Morgan and Nat Hentoff were three of the great critics whose liner notes guaranteed acceptance and greatness for jazz musicians. But many fell over themselves for Conover to fill the backs of their albums with information, which would serve as endorsement from the scholar of contemporary music, the authoritative voice on voice of America. Many wanted him to pronounce on their recorded albums as soon as they came from the studios, but he was very wary and careful.
Conover was a humble and kind-hearted man who was not willing to hurt anybody. He did not see himself as a critic out to point out the pitfalls of recordings and the shortcomings of a musician’s art. He felt that every jazz artist was great in his or her own right and that nobody should question his or her performances. He chose to remain a commentator.
When he was compelled to write liner notes on one of Alhmad Jamal’s hit albums, he preferred to do so along with a critic who discussed the music. His contributions came as something in a lighter mood — which had nothing in particular to do with Ahmad’s music. And yet, at the time, everybody was hailing Ahmad Jamal as Miles Davis’ influence in terms of the economy of notes.
Conover was also required by various Jazz Festivals to put the stamp of authority on their shows. He was needed by producers and musicians to identify with their live recordings where they expected him to at least say nice things about them and their music. The only one that I know of is his presence at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival where he came in to give support to Mahalia Jackson.
When he walked on stage on July 6, 1958, all he said was, “Ladies and gentlemen, it is Sunday morning and time for the world’s greatest gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson.”
This one statement sold the concert and the recorded albums of this festival.
I remember Conover.

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