Time for Jazz

Beginning in 1955, there was one worldwide voice that was inexorably linked to Jazz. This voice was not that of a jazz musician. But this voice reached out from the early days of the Cold War, and could be heard nightly from from East Berlin to Vladivastok, from Azerbaijan to Australia…for almost 25 years…bringing the sweet music to millions of jazz listeners worldwide. And while his name was practically unknown in the US, he became a powerful symbol of an America that promoted goodwill through jazz.

Willis Conover was not a jazz musician. However, many people believe that he did more to spread the sound of jazz than any person in music history and singularly helped make Jazz an international language. For more than forty years Conover brought jazz to people around world on his Voice of America (VOA) radio music programs “Music USA”. Here is a video tribute to that program 

In the great game of the Cold War, the State Department’s embarked on a series of cultural initiatives to spread the American way of life and counter the Soviet bloc’s increasing influence. Perhaps the most benign of the State Department’s foray into “culture war” was the creation of a nightly Jazz program on VOA..hosted by Willis Conover. And for millions of listeners all over the world, many in countries that restricted access to the West and all things Western, the nightly broadcasts transcended the politics of the Cold War and spoke in human terms in the universal language of jazz.

And those shortwave airwaves that spread the sound of Jazz penetrated the barriers of an India that was perceived by the West as being to closely aligned with the Eastern Bloc and the USSR. And for the thousands of Indians who stayed up into the odd hours of the night to pick up the VOA Willis Connover broadcast, this was the golden hour..it was Time for Jazz.

For the majority of Indian jazz fans of that time, Willis Conover was jazz. This was an India of the 60’s and ’70’s where jazz recorded or live was a scarce commodity. Records were hard to find, and record players and music systems were expensive for many. But many homes had shortwave radios and for nothing more than being willing to stay awake into the night, the VOA relay from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). For many, their education in Jazz was Willis Conover. His program was dearly loved, recorded on early reel tapes and eagerly listened to again and again.

So in 1978, when a group of dedicated Jazz enthusiasts in Bombay organized India first International Jazz Festival, the Jazz Yatra..(and documented in our film Finding Carlton – Uncovering the Story of Jazz in India) …it was fitting the Willis Conover was the master of ceremonies. And for the first time since 1978, here are two rare clips of Willis Conover, live from Jazz Yatra 1978 !:

There are some familiar faces at the tail end of the clip

UPDATE: the new Finding Carlton website provides more information about the film See WWW.FINDINGCARLTON.COM

3 thoughts on “Time for Jazz

  1. Wow! This has been a very interesting post. I was literally born listening to Willis Conover on the radio. I remember the evenings when I would sit beside Dad and listen to Conover hosting Jazz Hour on VOA. The memory is so ingrained, it seems like yesterday.

    I still remember the day when Conover’s familiar voice didn’t greet us. It was someone else. I knew at once that the inevitable had finally happened. Dad broke the sad news to me (I was in the other room). I knew then that an era had come to an end.

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