The DJ Who Shook the Soviet Union With Jazz

8_07_Willis_Conover_01
Composer, pianist, bandleader and jazz musician Duke Ellington, right, and broadcaster and jazz producer Willis Conover during a radio show in Washington, D.C., in November 1949. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty

Voice of America DJ Willis Conover is up for a postage stamp to honor his work in exporting jazz, especially to short-wave radio listeners in the old Soviet Bloc, as Doug Ramsey at The Wall Street Journal notes. A stamp would be a minimal tribute, given the remarkable role Conover played during the Cold War, though it would be just about the only "official" recognition he has ever received.

During Conover's four decades as a Voice of America (VOA) DJ from 1955 through the mid-1990s, he upended communist cultural policy just by playing prohibited "degenerate" American music that his overseas audience longed to hear. Most Americans have never heard of him, but in the postwar era he was one of the best-known, and certainly one of the most popular, Americans in the world. He had millions of devoted followers in Eastern Europe alone; his worldwide audience in his heyday has been estimated at up to 30 million people.

Conover managed to tour Soviet Bloc cities occasionally during East-West thaws, and, to his great surprise, was greeted at airports like a celebrity by huge cheering crowds. Moscow cabdrivers recognized him solely on the basis of his distinctive baritone voice.

Writer James Lester has collected a series of remarkable quotes that suggest the emotional depth of Conover's impact on his audience: "In 1982, when Conover was in Moscow as an MC for a group of touring American musicians, someone took his hand, kissed it, and said, 'If there is a god of jazz, it is you.' Another young Russian wrote touchingly to him, 'You are a source of strength when I am overwhelmed by pessimism, my dear idol,' and still another greeted him in Leningrad with, 'Villis! You are my father!'"

Conover never said a political word, letting the jazz do the talking. What did the jazz say? The late Russian dissident and novelist Vassily Aksyonov was to make jazz integral to his fiction, especially in his 1984 portrait of the 1960s Moscow intelligentsia, The Burn. According to Aksyonov, his circle admired jazz for "its refusal to be pinned down"; it was a release "from the structures of our minutely controlled everyday lives, of five-year plans, of historical materialism"; it was, for those trapped in the Soviet system, "an anti-ideology."

"When you are in a jail, that music makes you wonder what kind of country produced it," pianist David Azarian once told Down Beat magazine. "I tell you, Conover was America's best weapon to destroy socialism and Communism."

Though Conover was to play an important role in the development of dissident anti-communism, he was in one sense a consequence of Russian cultural resistance: His VOA show was a response to the amazing "Stilyagi" movement of late Stalinism.

Emerging at the end of the 1940s, stilyagi ("style hunters") were bohemians who responded to official anti-Americanism by publicly embracing an extreme form of the "vulgar" American, one based on gangster movies and official caricatures. The men dressed in suits with over-padded shoulders, wore wide, splashy ties (they painted them themselves), let their hair grow long and flipped it with heated irons, made heavy-soled shoes from black-market leather, chewed gum (it was paraffin wax, since there wasn't any chewing gum) and assumed an unusual gait to draw attention to themselves.

They even called each other by such American names as "Joe" and "Bob." The women were recognized by their tight skirts and heavy lipstick. They all idolized jazz—it had been played in Russia as recently as the war—collecting dubs made on old X-ray plates, the only plentiful medium in the USSR available for the purpose.

The stilyagi were attacked on the streets by the cops (and sometimes by the citizenry, too), but they also drew the attention of the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Chip Bohlen. In 1954, Bohlen suggested that the Voice of America beam a jazz program to the Soviet Bloc.

VOA officials were at first cool to the idea; it sounded trivial to them, and they doubted that Congress would budget the funds for somebody to spin jazz records to a probably tiny audience. They eventually decided to give it a try, and advertised for a jazz-show host.

Willis Conover at this time was a 34-year-old DJ at Washington's WWDC-AM (the same outlet that, a decade later, would purportedly be the first U.S. station to play Beatles records), and a small-time local jazz impresario whose concerts were noteworthy for their integrated audiences at a time when D.C.'s clubs and theaters were largely segregated.

Since the use of jazz to sell the U.S. in an era of Jim Crow laws has sometimes been condemned as hypocrisy, it's worth noting that Conover, at least, was no such hypocrite. He had drifted into music from his original passion, which was science fiction/fantasy; Conover's correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft (an indefatigable letter writer) was published in 1974 .

When Conover heard about the VOA gig, he thought it might be a way out of his announcing job, which he didn't like. It turned out to be a nightly way out of stultifying cultural confinement for his millions of listeners.

Of course, the Soviets tried to jam his hour-long show, Music, USA, but their battle against jazz (and, later, rock music) was a hopeless one. Poland soon proclaimed that "the building of Socialism proceeds more lightly and more rhythmically to the accompaniment of jazz," though communist authorities elsewhere continued to classify jazz as the music of degeneracy and "hooliganism."

By the time the short-wave dust had settled, however, Radio Moscow would be programming jazz by Russian musicians in an effort to make itself sound more hip to its own foreign audience. Of course, many of the younger Eastern European musicians—and some Cuban musicians, too—received their inspiration and jazz educations from Conover (as many testimonials on the Willis Conover Facebook page attest). And since Conover assumed a slow and deliberate speaking pace, many of them learned English from him as well.

Willis Conover died in 1996. It's a shame he remains so little-known to Americans when he was such an enormous presence on their behalf elsewhere in the world. Maybe the stamp, if it's approved, will help honor his memory. (The proposal is not the USPS's idea, but rather a successful citizen petition.)

In the meantime, a world full of now-nostalgic one-time listeners, a grateful generation of jazz artists and—to some unmeasurable degree—the ruins of the Soviet empire will have to do.

Charles Paul Freund is a contributing editor at Reason.com, where this article first appeared.