[JPL] Fest honors artists Ellington, Gillespie, jazz broadcaster Willis Conover

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Thu Sep 20 15:39:26 EDT 2007

19 September 2007

      Jazz, America's "Best Ambassador," Breaks Down Barriers

Fest honors artists Ellington, Gillespie, jazz broadcaster Willis Conover

By Louise Fenner
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington -- Crowds lined up around the block in Moscow in 1989 to meet 
the great American jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who had just played a 
sold-out concert.  But many people also wanted to hear about the man 
whose broadcasts on Voice of America had introduced them to American 
jazz: Willis Conover.

"When we were in Moscow people were lined up after the concert," said 
Charles Fishman, Gillespie's former manager, "and I would say a majority 
-- maybe three out of five -- would say to us in one way or another, 
'How is Willis Conover? Willis Conover and the Voice of America jazz was 
our lifeline to hope that one day we would be free, we would be able to 
express ourselves.'

"Then we went to Prague and Berlin, and it was more or less the same 
thing," added Fishman, who now produces the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival 
in Washington.

This year, the Washington festival included events honoring Gillespie 
and Conover as well as Ellington.  The final program was a concert 
September 17 in tribute to Conover, who hosted VOA's American jazz and 
popular music programs from 1955 until shortly before his death in 
1996.  The concert headliner was another jazz great, Cuban-born musician 
and composer Paquito D'Rivera.

Over the years, Conover interviewed hundreds of musicians, including 
Ellington, Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Irving Berlin and Louis 
Armstrong.  According to John Stevenson, director of VOA's central 
programs division, Conover was especially popular in countries behind 
the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. "He was the most famous American 
they knew," Stevenson said.

For Conover, "jazz and America mean the same thing: freedom," Stevenson 
added during a September 17 panel discussion at George Washington 
University on jazz and public diplomacy. "But his comments were not 
politicized.  He believed that the music alone carried America's 
message." (See related article 

Jazz has been part of America's message to the world and a symbol of its 
ideals for at least 50 years, not only in Conover's programming but also 
in State Department-sponsored overseas tours by Ellington, Gillespie, 
Armstrong and others.

Fishman, who accompanied Gillespie on numerous private and 
government-sponsored tours, said Gillespie always insisted that the 
opening act be a local group, and he also mingled with local musicians. 
It was not just the music audiences responded to, said Fishman during 
the panel discussion, it was also "the human connection."

George Moose, former U.S. ambassador to Benin and Senegal, agreed. He 
recalled how students at the University of Dakar in Senegal "responded 
with enormous enthusiasm" to Gillespie in 1989 -- not just to his music, 
but to his "spirit of participation."

Gillespie "was there not only to share his music, but to take in the 
culture he found there. It was far more effective than all the 
diplomatic language that we in the embassy were trying to use," Moose 
said.  "We reached more people in that week of concerts than we could 
have in a year's worth of other activities."

"Jazz is the best ambassador for the United States," said Bulgarian-born 
jazz pianist Milcho Leviev. "This is music that is played all over the 
world, it breaks all the barriers between people."

Leviev was part of the multiethnic quintet that played the tribute 
concert for Willis Conover, along with D'Rivera on alto saxophone and 
clarinet, George Mraz (Czech Republic) on bass, Valery Ponomarev 
(Russia) on trumpet and Horacio Hernandez (Cuba) on drums.

After the concert, Leviev told /USINFO/ that he first heard jazz on 
Conover's program in 1955, when he was 17, "and until my defection from 
Bulgaria, which was in 1970, I barely missed a night. ... That was our 
academy of jazz."

Karen Hughes, under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public 
affairs, noted that "although he was not as well known in America, 
Willis Conover had a huge impact /for/ America."  He had a huge 
following overseas, she noted, and "his story is an example of how art 
and culture can communicate across borders and stir the human spirit."

D'Rivera recalled that the Cuban government tried, not always 
successfully, to jam VOA broadcasts.  "I would never have imagined that 
when I was listening to Willis Conover in Havana, Valery Ponomarev was 
listening to the same show in Russia, and the same thing with Milcho 
Leviev in Bulgaria," he told the concert audience.  He called jazz "the 
most beautiful music on the planet."

The concert, held in the VOA auditorium, began with "Take the A Train," 
the signature tune of Duke Ellington's band, which became the theme song 
of Conover's Voice of America Jazz Hour.  About 70 minutes later it 
ended with Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma" and a standing ovation.

In an interview afterward, D'Rivera said that in addition to the great 
jazz artists, other musicians and composers, such as Leonard Bernstein 
and George Gershwin, drew on elements of jazz. "That is why it is so 
important -- it's not only the jazz people, it's the people that have 
been influenced by jazz," he said.

"I don't think I have enough words to describe how valuable is the 
treasure that we have in jazz," he added.

For more information, see VOA's special Web pages on Willis Conover 
<http://www.voanews.com/english/About/2007-Willis-Conover.cfm> and the 
tribute concert 
which include audio and video clips.

For more stories about the influence of musicians and other artists in 
society, see "America Savors Its Music During Jazz Appreciation Month 
<http://usinfo.state.gov/scv/Archive/2006/Apr/03-859354.html>" and /The 
Arts <http://usinfo.state.gov/scv/life_and_culture/the_arts.html>/.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, 
U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

Dr. Jazz
Dr. Jazz Operations
24270 Eastwood
Oak Park, MI  48237
(248) 542-7888
SKYPE:  drjazz99

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