'Willis Conover: Broadcasting
Jazz to the World',
by Terence M. Ripmaster
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: iUniverse, Inc. (March 1, 2007)
By Kim Andrew Elliott, International Broadcasting Bureau Research Analyst
If you go to my website about international broadcasting (kimandrewelliott.com) and search on ďjazz,Ē youíll see several entries about musicians who were inspired by Willis Conoverís jazz broadcasts on the Voice of America. They listened in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, as expected, but also in India, Cuba, Sweden Ė all over the world, actually.
My own first memories of Willis Conover were as a teenaged shortwave listener in Indiana. When I began working at VOA in 1985, I considered it a perk to encounter the famous international broadcaster in the corridors. Willis always had a smile and a hello for me. I donít think he ever knew my name.
Given all the people who knew Willis, or at least listened to him on the radio, itís surprising that the first biography about him was written by someone who had never heard of him until after Willisís death in 1994. Nevertheless, Terence M. Ripmaster, a retired history professor, is an expert on jazz and its history, so he writes with authority and recognizes the significance of Willisís career.
Ripmaster goes back to the early days of Willisís life. At age 16, he started a publication for devotees of science fiction. By World War II, his interests had shifted to music. During and after the war, he was able to get work as host of jazz programs at radios stations in and around Washington. This is in the days before radio was focused-grouped and formatted, and when jazz was almost mainstream.
That must have been quite a time, those hipster days of the 1940s and 50s, when Willis frequented the jazz clubs of Washington and New York. Cigarettes were more fashionable back then, and smoke-filled clubs even more so. I regret being a bit too young to have experienced that scene, though my lungs are probably the better for it.
As Ripmaster writes, for unknown reasons, Willis largely quit the club scene when he was hired by the Voice of America, his first program airing in January 1955. Willis always worked for VOA as a contractor rather than in the civil service. This, he said, was to protect his ďindependence,Ē though it may also have provided him with more generous remuneration than received by the usual starting VOA broadcaster. Willis did not receive benefits, such as health insurance, which would have helped him as his health failed in the 1990s.
Ripmaster describes Willisís many overseas trips, his efforts to break the color line in the jazz scene, and his personal life. We readers of biography always love gossipy, personal stuff Ö you do Ö donít you? Ö and so we learn about Willisís five marriages, which produced a grand total of zero children. But here, the authorís research trips up somewhat. On page 11, he writes that Willis married his first wife, Mary Felker, in 1952. On page 19, we read that his marriage to Felker was in 1947, ending in divorce in 1950.
Well, biography is difficult, especially when it involves gathering information from the National Archives, from the Willis Conover collection at the University of North Texas (did Willis ever set foot in Texas?), from Willisís friends and associates, and from VOA itself. Ripmasterís book meanders, like a procession of 4 x 6 index cards, so you have my permission not to read it from front to back, but to choose chapters as your mood suits.
When I interviewed him for VOAís Talk to America, Ripmaster told me there is enough material about Willis at the University of North Texas for at least two more books. In the meantime, there is plenty of good reading in his book for anyone interested in Willisís life, VOAís past, or the history of American jazz.