[JPL] Fest honors artists Ellington, Gillespie,
jazz broadcaster Willis Conover
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
"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
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
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
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs,
U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
Dr. Jazz Operations
Oak Park, MI 48237
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