Born 18 October 1920 in Buffalo, New York
Died 17 May 1996 in Alexandria, Virginia
He is recognized for playing one of the key roles in desegregating Washington D.C. nightclubs, as well as single-handedly keeping interest in jazz culture alive in Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, when jazz was banned by most of the communist governments. Conover was born in Buffalo, New York, and attended the Maryland State Teacher's College at Salisbury, Maryland. Despite his father's wishes, who expected Willis to continue a family tradition and join The Citadel military college in South Carolina, he pursued a career in radio, and became an announcer for WTBO in Cumberland, Maryland.
Master of ceremonies at the Newport Jazz Festival . In 1955, Willis Conover moved to Washington, D.C., and started his legendary hour-long Voice of America Jazz Hour program. Voice Of America was only broadcasted on shortwave in the United States, so Conover wasn't particularly well-known domestically even by dedicated jazz lovers, but in the USSR and Eastern Europe, where his nightly broadcasts were the only available source of information about jazz for millions of people, Willis was the most beloved and respected Western radio presenter. Known for a sonorous baritone voice, Conover had been trying to make the broadcast more accessible for non-native speakers, and wrote his scripts in simplified English, talking slowly and with clear articulation. Thus, he often acted as an unofficial English teacher for Slavic and Eastern European listeners.
Terence Ripmaster, author of Willis Conover: Broadcasting Jazz To The World biography, interviewed Leo Feigin (an expatriate Russian jazz producer, who emigrated from the Soviet Union and started a renowned independent label Leo Records in the late seventies) for his book in London in 1999. Feigin claimed that Conover was 'like a saint' for Leo and his friends, and literally the entire generation of music listeners behind the Iron Curtain learned all about jazz by listening to Willis Conover's program, despite all Soviet officials' attempts to scramble and jam the signal of VoA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and other Western broadcasters. Willis Conover visited Soviet Union, Estonia, and other Eastern European and Baltic countries several time during the sixties, always finding a triumphant reception, and treated with utmost respect and admiration by crowds of dedicated fans.
He produced jazz concerts at The White House (2), Newport Jazz Festival, as well as for movies and television, and had been known for arranging events where people of all races were welcome. In 1956, Willis Conover conducted a series of interviews with jazz luminaries like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, and Art Tatum. They were added by The Library Of Congress to the National Recording Registry in 2010.
In his youth, Conover was interested in science fiction, and issued a Science Fantasy Correspondent fanzine. He was also in contact with horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and their correspondence was published as Lovecraft at Last (Carrolton-Clark, 1975).
In 2015, the University Of North Texas published an open-access Music Library Conover Collection, with digitized copies of Conover's radio programs available online.
- 15 Vocals
- 3 Writing & Arrangement
- 14 Featuring & Presenting
- 1 Production
- 44 Acting, Literary & Spoken