Willis Conover – An European Jazz Personality?


Willis Conover’s character was all but European. In fact, he was strongly American, a radio broadcaster who devoted himself to the dissemination of American jazz. Through his broadcasts, he helped to create and shape European jazz in a subtle, but nevertheless very effective way. Because of Conover’s unique position as a broadcaster, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, his jazz broadcasts were the only possibility for Eastern Bloc listeners to hear American jazz. When Conover visited Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Hungary, and the Soviet Union, he established a mutual jazz distribution system. He attended Eastern Bloc jazz festivals, obtained tapes and then broadcasted them over Voice of America. Conover even created special jazz shows for radio stations in these countries. With the help of gatekeepers like Andrzej Jaroszewski, Stanislav Titzl, Imre Kiss, and Aleksey Batashev he established a firm network that survived for decades and helped to strengthen jazz in Europe even while jazz in America was losing its former strong position. However, it is important to note that Conover did not simply promote all forms of jazz. He organized his broadcasts according to his own musical preferences: jazz classics such as Duke Ellington or Stan Kenton played an important role, but he disregarded all manner of jazzrock trends. He also rejected, or at least neglected, some of the most important European jazz musicians, for example Krzysztof Komeda or the Ganelin Trio. So, Conover was not the father of European jazz, as the ‘Conover myth’ wants us to believe. But it seems Conover had a decisive role at least for the evolving jazz scenes in Eastern Bloc countries. Here, Conover was highly appreciated, whereas in the western part of Europe he was largely unknown. The reason was that his broadcasts were a part of the USA’s Cold War cultural diplomacy and as such were directed to the eastern part of Europe.
What jazz music did Conover broadcast and which musicians did he support? The question draws us into the history of cultural relations with its coincidental events and misunderstandings. This paper discusses the perceptions of Conover’s historical place. 


Presenting the American radio broadcaster Willis Conover as a European jazz personality sounds strange at the first glimpse, of course. On the contrary it seems evident to present Conover as an American jazz personality – and even as a very important one. With his radio show “Music USA – Jazz Hour” Conover, engaged as a contractor at the Voice of America, the government-controlled radio station of the USA, had the intention to spread American jazz all over the world.1 In fact, this radio show emerged at a time when the U.S. government started to use  jazz as a means of cultural struggle in the Cold War. When the U.S. ambassador Charles E. Bohlen found out in Moscow in 1952 how eager Soviet youth was to listen to the U.S. jazz,2 he understood that jazz can work as a kind of musical Cold War weapon. Shortly later, “Music USA” started, and it had an overwhelming success not only in the Soviet Union, but also in the former Eastern Bloc and in all continents where the broadcast was sent. So, in the eyes of Cold War propaganda officers of the U.S., the strategy seemed to achieve its effect. American jazz was spread all over the world, and it was intended to start a kind of “mental rollback” of Soviet influence.

Conover and his radio station received huge masses of audience mail in which listeners expressed their warm gratitude for the possibility to get to know “real” American jazz. Vividly they described how they learnt jazz basics with the help of the Conover transmissions. In Europe, Conover’s influence was strong especially in the Eastern part of the continent. According to George Wein, one of the organizers of the Newport jazz festival, “Eastern Europe’s entire concept of jazz comes from Willis Conover“.3 This sounds curious. Even if we accept the important influence of Conover’s broadcast activities, aren’t these words of George Wein at least exaggerated? Was Conover really “the father of European jazz”, as Michael Zverin put it?4 Aren’t there other influences on the development of jazz in Eastern Europe besides of Conover, also? What about the numerous American jazzmen travelling into the eastern part of the continent from the 1950s onwards? No one denies the American character of jazz, but in most European countries, jazz history begin already in the first decades of the 20th century, being followed of an acculturation process, of a kind of Europeanization of jazz. In the last decade of the century, Stuart Nicholson even asked in a provocative manner the question of the end of jazz in America and its continuation in Europe.5

The idea of this contribution is to discuss the question of the “American” nature of jazz by a revision of Conover’s role in Eastern Europe. In several aspects, Conover was an integral part of European, and especially Eastern European jazz life. For several countries he stood at the beginning of the formation of strong national jazz scenes – but they started not simply as forms of American jazz abroad, but they were the result of a mixture of American, European, and national musical cultural elements. In this process, Conover proves to be a part of the formation of these jazz scenes and as such he proves to be a European jazz personality.

This “European nature” of Conover took place in a two-folded manner: first, Conover took an active part in the formation of European jazz scenes by broadcasting not only American, but also European musicians, by travelling into the countries, by organizing a musician’s network, i.e. by practice. Secondly, and this is perhaps even more important, Conover developed a jazz aesthetic which founded the idea of European jazz scenes as a part of worldwide American jazz also theoretically. Only this jazz aesthetic made Conover’s dealing with European jazz possible. If we today can speak about jazz as the “classical music of globalization”6, this notion only became possible with the victory of this perception of jazz not only as an American art.

Conover as active promoter of European jazz scenes

At the very beginning of Conover’s radio show, the intention was to provide US jazz to the Eastern Europe audience. So Conover did, broadcasting music that he considered to be a canon of jazz classics. At these very early times of US radio broadcasting, in the West there was no idea of the very existence of jazz in the Socialist world. Stalinist destructions of the emerging jazz movements in Central Europe in the years after World War 2 had created the idea among Western observes that under Stalin and neither in the Soviet Union nor in her satellite states jazz existed no more. Western observers did not know what we know today: Jazz had not disappeared in the Socialist world at all, it only had disappeared from the surface of the public sphere. After Stalin’s death, at once composers, jazzmen and other promoters of art started demanding to give jazz a place in socialist societies. In the USA, the public learned that in the end of the 1950s. The 1956 revolt in Hungary was an event commentated worldwide. In the jazz program of VOA, Conover presented the Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó in a special edition of his “Music USA-Jazz hour” show on November 23, 1956.7 Szabó had good contacts to Hungarian ambassador’s member Ernest Nagy, who put Szabó into contact with Americans, and finally also with Willis Conover. This was not only the beginning of the international acceptance for Szabó, but it was also a demonstration for the US public that in the Eastern Bloc countries good jazz musicians exist who were longing for options of musical activity. In this sense, promoting Szabó by Conover was a political anticommunist Cold war activity as well as the first step to include European jazz music behind the Iron Curtain into the program of the VOA jazz show.

Two years later, Dave Brubeck made a tour through Poland, where he met not only jazz fans, but also a lot of musicians who told him about their desire for public jazz performances”. Brubeck not only communicated this in his homeland, but he also expressed his warm thanks to Willis Conover, because his broadcasts had made possible the overwhelming success Brubeck received especially in Poland.8

Conover himself in this very year 1958 found out that in the Eastern Bloc a jazz life waited to be detected. Being emcee of the Newport jazz festivals at that time, Conover met Jan Ptaszyn Wróblewski at the 1958 Newport festival, who told him about the jazz development in socialist Poland.9

So it was almost natural that Conover chose as one of the countries of this trip to Europe not only France, Western Germany, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries, but also Poland. Especially here he realized the vivid interest of local jazz fans and he couldn’t help appreciate the unexpectedly high artificial standard of Polish jazz musicians. The concerts of Polish jazz musicians where Conover was present were taped by Polish radio. As a radio worker and announcer, Conover at once asked to get permission to broadcast this material from his own broadcaster, the VOA. So shortly later Polish jazz fans could listen to their own music at that program, where hitherto only music from the USA was included.

This meant a definitive change in the idea and the practice of the US jazz radio shows for abroad. Up to this point, jazz had been a kind of present of the father USA to his children.10 Already the precursor of Conover at VOA, Leonard Feather, had offered such presents which were warmly accepted, as Feather himself described.11 Now, with Conover’s rebroadcasting European jazz to its countries of origin, the one-way situation of exclusively American donations and European reception had changed. It became reality that an American broadcaster accepted and even appreciated jazz from outside America. Both Conover and his listeners found out the overwhelming effect of identification which offered this procedure. East European jazz musicians had a very positive image of America as homeland of jazz, and listening their own jazz in the radio of this very homeland meant something like a coronation ceremony of their jazz by the highest possible authority.

Thus, these rebroadcasts of European jazz in the VOA Music USA – Jazz hour led Conover to a new understanding of jazz: For him, jazz was now an universal art with roots in America, but with a decentralized developing structure. Conover had opened his broadcast first to Polish jazz and then to jazz from other countries, he basically had accepted this idea.

In the following years after 1959, Conover did everything to promote European jazz scenes. Festivals in Poland, in the ČSSR, in Hungary, and in the Soviet Union started, most of them with his personal presence. Musicians declared their deep loyalty to Conover and to his understanding of jazz, and Conover encouraged them to express themselves musically. Exactly with this he encouraged them to found new forms of jazz different from the American canon. In this way, Conover connected the idea of new forms of jazz which became more and more popular in Europe, deeply with his own personality and with America. Conover became part of a contact network which led to a stylistic and cultural exchange not only between him and the Eastern Bloc musicians, but also between themselves.

Conover did not only speak about these connections, he also acted practically and personally.

Conover invited the most talented musicians from the countries he visited to come the USA in order to finance them musical education or giving them the possibility for a concert trip. For a huge amount of musicians, he did not only write letters of recommendation but he paid them also money from his private income or even hosted the musicians at his private home. In 1979, Conover founded a kind of private agency named EETA (Eastern European Travellers Assistance) and from the account of this agency Conover made financial aid to incoming jazz musicians.12 Having been in America augmented the reputation of every jazz musician in his homeland dramatically.

From 1964 onwards, Conover installed the FOMUSA system, a kind of virtual listener’s network. At any place in the world a group of at least 12 listeners could ask Conover to be registered as a Friends of the USA music (=FOMUSA) group and they would receive some jazz souvenirs and the bimonthly newspaper. This initiative proved to be such an overwhelming success that Conover had to stop it after several years – the broadcaster simply couldn’t stand the costs for the program any more. Even if these two measures, the concrete musicians´ aid and the FOMUSA group system, did not focus especially at Eastern Europe, they led to a more and more intensive discussion of the European, American, and global  nature of jazz.

From the 1970s onwards, Conover could present his broadcasts not only in the VOA program, but also in the program of the state socialist radio stations of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. This was the consequence of Conover’s network activity. Often, like e.g. in Czechoslovakia Stanislav Titzl or in Hungary Imre Kiss, the organizers of the jazz festivals were employees at the state radio stations, and so it was easy for Conover to ask them to broadcast special radio shows. Conover produced special programs for each country, taped them, shipped the tapes to Europe where they were received by his contact persons at the radio stations and integrated in the program.

All this happened regularly, periodically. Every year the great jazz festivals organized their next edition, and especially the Warsaw Jazz Jamboree Conover attended regularly. In this way, Conover became an integral part of the native jazz life in these countries. Nevertheless, the image of Willis Conover as a father remained integral part of the Conover myth until his death, if not remained after.

Why he did all that: Conover’s jazz aesthetics

Conover was not only a radio broadcaster presenting the music he liked. First of all, he was hired by a government-controlled radio station. So, even if he did not stop stressing his independence, many internal papers about VOA’s redaction conferences, about meetings with government commissions dealing with the purpose of “cultural diplomacy” (as it was called officially) clearly demonstrate that Conover was ordered to full fill concrete tasks. But in doing so, he was very reflected. Conover had been a jazz radio moderator also before his engagement at the VOA, and he had developed ideas on the nature of jazz which formed the base for his work also later. He was not only a radio employeemaker, but also a man with excellent writing skills, and was brilliant in expressing his views on aesthetic problems. So he presented his ideas constantly in internal meetings, especially when he had to defend his ideas.

This was necessary for various reasons: In regular terms, the VOA work was evaluated in order to justify the sums of money spent for it. Conover had to argue convincingly in order to maintain his activity. Being employed without a fixed contract, Conover periodically had to demonstrate the usefulness of his programs in order to get the next contract. In the beginning of his show, i. e. in the 1950s, it was relatively easy, because his ideas and the goals of the government circles on the need for jazz mainly went parallel. Later on, this changed: Conover’s intensive occupation with the international jazz world alienated him from the propaganda-oriented ideas of his sponsors. When he continued to promote more and more jazz from other countries than America, his sponsors started asking him which would be the interest of the USA for this.

Another problem for Conover was the emerging of rock music: When it became more and more visible, that the youth worldwide, and also in the VOA target area of the Socialist world, switched away from jazz to rock, Conover at once saw himself confronted by his sponsors with a serious legitimation problem. The answers he gave defending himself and his broadcast at the same time form the essence of his aesthetical thinking of jazz. As demonstrated, this was not only theory, but also practice.

The beginnings: Conover and official US jazz propaganda

Looking at the beginning of Conover’s activity at VOA, the parallels between Conover’s position and the basic ideas of official cultural diplomacy are evident. Conover even gave place for the propagation of these ideas in his radio show.13 On June 26, 1956, in Conover’s jazz show he broadcast an interview he had held a month before with congressman Frank Thompson, who himself was a jazz fan, also. In this interview, Thompson among other statements made clear that for him „jazz is the strongest weapon we have against communism“. American jazz was presented as a weapon for democracy. According to Thompson, jazz was so deeply intertwined with American culture that he suggested to speak simply of “American music” rather than “jazz”. „When musicians in other countries play jazz (as they do), they are playing American Music. And when listeners in other countries enjoy and discuss jazz (as they do), they are becoming America-oriented.”14 These statements formed the official view of the US government. It was not only congressman Thompson who presented them in the radio, but they were published also in official sources of the VOA Foreign Affairs Division.15

Conover himself expressed a similar opinion in the American press. After his first travel to the Socialist part of Europe, he published a text with the title “Reflections on an image” with ideas on jazz and music reception in the USA and other parts of the world, especially Europe. Here, he identifies the attractiveness of jazz with its allusion to America:
It is no accident that jazz was born in America. Its structure, if not always its business deals, parallels America’s social-political scheme: individual freedom within group cooperation. […] For many people, our music is the only window open to America: they can’t jet jump oceans as easily as we. They tap America’s optimistic climate through our music […] Some so absorbed it that they become American in spirit without recognizing – and isn’t that even better?”16

This quotation presents a description of jazz stressing its American nature. Often repeated by Conover in these words or with slight modifications, these words totally go conform with a propagandist perspective on the topic. So, especially in official texts, press releases and the US administration material ideas of that kind dominate. The fact that Conover himself also repeats these words shows that he was part of this propaganda system, also.

US battle against European cultural supremacy

It is important to understand that these ideas of American cultural supremacy are not only the result of the American-Soviet cold war contrast. In a certain sense, they are also directed against the “good old Europe”, offering a solution for an American cultural minority complex.    Since its consolidation as an independent state, America had made efforts to install a national culture in all its forms, so in music. Not different from the newly emerging national movements in East Central Europe in the second half of the 19th century, also in America a national movement emerged with the aim to create an own American music. Composers like Edward McDowell and others today are mostly forgotten, but play an important role in this development.

In the beginning of the Cold war, Americans were very highly impressed by the huge amount of money the Soviets seemed to spend for activities of promotion of musical high culture, sending such high-quality ensembles in the world as the Bolshoi Theatre ensemble. So, American cold war propaganda officers decided to give an answer of the same range, promoting themselves American first-class musical groups like the Boston Symphony Orchestra.17 The struggle for cultural supremacy was regarded as a crucial battlefield of the cold war by both superpowers. The more they realized that an open confrontation with weapons was impossible, the more importance they saw in the cultural struggle, understanding it as the field where the decision of the orientation of the masses either to the West or to the East would be solved finally. Neither Soviets nor Americans could be sure that the final victory was theirs, and so they put much energy into this struggle.

This situation changed when it became more and more obvious that it was no more first of all the field of classical music which had a convincing force over European listeners, but that it was jazz. This was found out by accident. The staff of the radio stations of the American Forces Network (AFN) which were located in all areas where U. S. troops were in charge got more and more letters not only from U.S. soldiers, but from civil nationals with the request to maintain the broadcast of actual American music, esp. of American jazz. These letters did not only come from the Western zones of occupation of Germany, but also from the territory of the future GDR, the future ČSSR and even from Poland. Obviously, it was jazz what interested most ordinary people, and not so much high-cultural events like concerts of first-class classical music ensembles.

This was a lecture rather unexpected for US cultural diplomats. During the long time of existence of jazz in this country, this music was depicted by the leading white cultural and political elite of the country as cultureless noise of underdeveloped negroes, as a spot of shame of America, and in no way as a part of the official culture of that country. Only recently, jazz slowly had made its way towards a more accepted place in the US public sphere.18 Norman Granz succeeded with Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, Duke Ellington was able to present his Harlem Suite in the Metropolitan Opera in the beginning of 1951. Print media started writing about jazz as a part of American culture. In the beginning of the 1950s, some authors became representative for this establishing process of jazz in the US public sphere. In 1952, John S. Wilson started to write about jazz for The New York Times, so did Whitney Balliett for Saturday Review. Leonard Feather who had written for Metronome now changed to Down Beat. Feather also remembered the beginning of the interest of the government-controlled radio station of VOA of a jazz program:

A branch of the US government was becoming interested in a source of international goodwill it had never before noticed. Not long after I had gone to work for Duke, a call from Washington invited me to meet Harold Boxer of the State Department’s ‘Voice of America’. I was invited to assemble a series of programmes which I called ’Jazz Club USA’, to be beamed around the world.19

With Willis Conover finally, jazz became a part of the official culture to be presented abroad by the United States. The famous State Department tours of leading jazz musicians (and of Conover, also) got their sense within this arrangement.

Conover as ambassador of the US high culture in Europe

Now, America had some cultural heritage she could be proud of – and additionally, what could be extremely useful as Cold war weapon. It was this thinking Conover was installed to propagate, and in the beginning of his career at VOA, this thinking mostly went conform with his own ideas. Similar as the US administration, also Conover tried to present the message of the existence of an American high-culture not only into the Socialist part of the European continent. In 1969, Conover had the idea to organize a jazz festival in Dublin with the aim of promoting US-American culture in Europe. In the presenting paper, he wrote:

One of America’s traditional strengths is its ability to do what Europeans do, only better.  […] Even when performing in European idioms, Americans can be unsurpassable. Our ballet dancers study and rehearse and train with a cold frenzy. The brass teams in our symphony orchestras have virility equal to America’s driving spirit which is supreme. Et cetera. Another of our strengths is our willingness to adopt extra-American cultural idioms; in this sense, we aren’t chauvinists.

One of our weaknesses, however, is our sense of cultural inferiority, our continuing search for cultural values almost exclusively in European idioms, our inability or unwillingness to recognize the validity of our own. When this was a frontier country, a belief in Europe’s cultural superiority could be justified. Not today.20

Dealing with this American inferiority complex took much place in Conover’s thinking:

There is, I fear, a sort of cultural condescension: Americans make wonderful alarm-clocks. But write a novel? A symphony?21 The European arrogance to high arts music of the US origin is reflected in the US public in the 1950s vividly. With self-irony a journalist described high arts music as a “Don’t buy American” Art.22

For Conover, American jazz had a quality which definitely stopped US inferiority: „There are countries like Czechoslovakia for example known as the conservatory of Europe for generations who may give more continuous, more widespread, more conscious attention to the production of music but they look up to us for what we do best in music.”23 This idea of jazz as the US contribution to world culture got the status of an official ideology and was repeated in countless articles.24

Changes by reapproachement

Already only some years later, Conover stopped propagating the American nature of jazz in this direct, open way. He explained the reason for this in an interview he gave to Henry Loomis in 1965:

In any case, the Soviets have a love-hate relationship with the United States. They want to prove […] to us that we have reason to accept them as equals. […] I think […] that they feel a tremendous inferiority complex and they need to have us convince them that we do not think they are as inferior as they feel perhaps they are. Acceptance by the West is a great thing to them […] So that now I have been very careful in my broadcast statements and in statements for their press, in statements in interviews by their people, their reporters, […] to describe jazz as an international music, as an international art form. I don’t say it’s an American music and you play it pretty good fellows. That would kill it for them. […] It’s important that they feel that they are making a jazz of their own. However ridiculous this may sound, it’s important that they believe this”.25

What may sound even cynical at the first reading, becomes then understandable. In fact, many other details show that the “inferiority complex” Conover observed on the Soviet side was constantly present in the 1960s in the post-Stalinist thaw period. As Marsha Siefert has put it, Soviet cultural diplomates obeyed a strict step-by-step opening policy towards the USA: Every step had to be answered equally, before the next step could be made: The US exhibition in Moscow from 1959 had to be paralleled with an exhibition in the USA, the publishing of the journal America in Russian had to be paralleled by an equivalent called Soviet life, and so on.26 What Conover did not reflect is that this “inferiority complex” was not unsimilar to the inferiority complex the USA had felt against Europe and the Soviet Union before detecting the integrative force of jazz.

Even if Conover seemed to start speaking of jazz as international art form only because of strategic reasons, without inner conviction, slowly also his understanding changed. The more Conover got to know music and musicians from other parts of the world and especially from Europe, the more he understood that the idea of jazz only as an American art simply was too narrow for a correct description of reality. For consequence, by learning more about jazz developments in Europe, Conover slowly, but constantly went away from the exclusively American-oriented official propaganda understanding of jazz.

In the same interview, Conover explained that jazz had not only American roots. He even admitted that some of the elements which commonly were regarded most originally American have other sources. He claimed that many „Negro songs” were “old marching songs from Europe” and in general he made the statement that “Jazz has a European harmony”.27 In another interview done by Bill Starks, Conover heavily pointed out the role of Europeans in jazz life:

Critics who believe that jazz only appeals to Americans because it was born here are out of touch with reality. The first book about jazz was written by a Belgian, the second by a Frenchman. The English Melody Maker has been including jazz in its coverage since before the American magazine Down Beat was begun!28

These words prove that Conover himself did not believe in what the myth of his person tells about him: Conover was well aware of the fact that in many European countries there were strong traditions of jazz going back on the beginnings of the 20th century. Conover knew the European prewar-swing orchestras, he knew the theoretical writings of European authors like André Hodeir, and he was far away from denying this knowledge. Statements like this show that, unlike some of his chiefs in the US administration, Conover had realized that „we can’t discuss foreign reactions to jazz unless we examine our own”.29

The result was a description of jazz combining its multi-cultural nature with the American immigration ideology. Conover gave the following explanation on the roots of jazz:

Every element of Jazz comes from some other country: from Scottish and Welsh and English hymns, from French dances, from German marches, from African and Caribbenan rhythms, and from the Spanish-Arab-Jewish-Italien culture of the Mediterranean countries. These elements came to America because people came to America.30

Thus, Conover had come to a synthesis of an „American“ and an „European“ description of jazz history. This offered him both: he could continue to fulfil the mission of his employers to  propagate American jazz throughout the world as cold war weapon, and at the same time he could deal with jazz musicians from other countries. By doing the latter, he changed his „Music USA“ radio show into a show with a broader context, dramatically widening the initial conception of this show.


Jazz as Fine Arts

In Europe, Conover met jazz musicians who had absolved a solid musical education first, before switching at a certain point suddenly, but definitely to jazz – and this point was in numerous cases the first listening to his own radio show. In Europe, the most jazz musicians had such a musical education, whereas in the USA this was an exception. For Conover, this did not only explain the great enthusiasm European musicians showed when they had their first encounter with the moderator they hitherto only had known by his voice. Conover could discuss with European jazz musicians not only about their own performances, but also about elaborated topics of jazz aesthetics, about the relationship of jazz to modern music and about many other topics. Conover, who liked these conversations very much because of his great knowledge not only in jazz but also in modern music, was highly attracted by these conversations. So the notion of jazz as a form of high arts widespread among European intellectuals pretty well went together with Conover’s own ideas on jazz.

In many situations, Conover expressed his sympathy to all forms of jazz practice connected with this idea of jazz as fine arts. First, he noted, that, generally spoken, the standard of jazz performance in Europe was higher “than in the true Eastern countries”. He highlighted Europe in comparison to the Far East (with the exception of Japan), with the Arab countries and even with Black Africa, despite of the “black” origin of jazz.31 Despite the fact that Conover had many listeners in the black African countries, he did not pay to them similar attention than he did to listeners and musicians from Europe and especially from its Eastern part.

Conover heavily rejected the idea of jazz as a music of minor importance, of music of lower value or simple entertainment.

As Andre Previn said to me once, ‚I hate to hear the expression, „serious music,“ because that implies that jazz is funny music and it isn’t. It’s just as serious and has just as many disciples as the other musics.’ It’s another way of communicating one’s life and one’s feelings about life in a way that’s more effective than perhaps words could be”.32

Conover met here with positions of the well-educated European middle class which had an interest to separate itself from the lower spheres of society. At this point is visible that Conover propagated a jazz understanding which was different from the lower-strata origin of this art form in the very beginning. He was supported in this idea by leading European jazz intellectuals like e. g. Joachim E. Berendt, who also made the point in Europe, that the idea of jazz as fine arts music was much more deeply rooted than in the USA.33

Conover’s strong orientation on the idea of jazz as fine arts music explains his heavy opposition against rock and pop music forms. From the very beginning of rock’n’roll music, Conover heavily opposed against all forms of this music. In 1965, he condemned “Beatle-type music“ as „mass production music” as  “monotonous”  and “not sexy”.34 His harsh, rigid and even sometimes primitive opinions on rock and pop music forms contrast dramatically with his differentiated judgements on all forms of jazz music. It was Conover who cared considerably for the consolidation of the jazz-rock contrast with his constant verbal attacks against the rock music milieu. It is important to note that Conover simply did not want to realize reality in some European countries, where rock music either was higher appreciated (like e. g. in Great Britain) or even was included by the jazz milieu with the aim to modernize jazz as a whole (like e. g. in Czechoslovakia). It seems that Conover did not pay so much attention on the reasons for the social needs of music,35 but first of all he dealt with stylistic categories.

Towards a specific European jazz: The example of Poland


Conover did not only realize that there is a specific European jazz, but he also felt the obligation to make contributions to its further development. Already after his first encounter with Polish jazz musicians, Conover gave them the advice to create a special, national Polish form of jazz by using inspirations of Polish folk music. Indeed, Conover’s Polish partners followed this advice, and so Jan Ptaszyn Wróblewski wrote his Bandoska in Blue.36 Twelve years later, Ptaszyn himself made critical remarks to this way of creating national idioms in jazz,37 whereas Adam Sławiński praised Bandoska as successful. Earlier, already Roman Waschko and Andrzej Trzaskowski had expressed positive opinions.38  Conover had started a discussion among Polish jazz musicians which proved to be extremely fruitful.

Conover had initiated an important discussion in Polish jazz, but he was not the only source for the idea of creation a specific Polish jazz. There is a second, even more important tradition line in Polish jazz, which is combined with Krzysztof Komeda. Komeda created a music filled with Polish spirit but not built on Polish folk songs openly, and with this conception he was so successful, that his compositions, especially Astigmatic and Svantetic, were regarded as masterworks of Polish jazz. Later on, leading Polish jazzmen like Tomasz Stańko declared to have their roots in the Komeda tradition.39

Conover, however, reacted to Komedas’s music friendly, but he did not appreciate the potential of this music to be the base for a future Polish jazz – even if he played Komeda in his Music USA show. Komeda had got its international contacts on a way not so directly related with Conover. At the beginning of his musical career, Komeda had listened to Conover’s radio show also, but then his artistic conception grew by his cooperation with musicians from Scandinavia like Bernt Rosengren and others, which were not so narrow oriented on Conover.

This is only one example for the fact that, in contrast to the statement of George Wein, the whole European concept of jazz did not come alone from Conover at all. Wein’s statement was part of a mythical description of Conover’s role, which was widespread, but did not catch reality as a whole.

Nevertheless, Conover appreciated especially the Polish jazz scene very much. Regarding his musical aesthetics, it is telling how he expressed this admiration. For Conover, Polish jazz was so good because of the structural parallels of the country and its musicians to America. In 1981, after a long time of contact with Poland and its jazzmen, Conover wrote:

The history of Poland includes centuries of invasion and occupation, from all points of the compass. The survivors and the descendants have a combination of personal characteristics not too different from that of American survivors – I speak now of course of the generations of American blacks who worked towards and at least realized equality of opportunity throughout our country.40


Willis Conover was a European personality, in the sense presented here. By broadcasting jazz from VOA and by meeting with jazzmen and jazz personalities in Europe, he also changed his ideas on the role and the character of jazz. So, the examples of this paper demonstrate that in a project of writing the history of jazz in Europe,41 Willis Conover has to be included. He was not only a promoter and “father”, as the Conover myth puts it, but the constant exchange he held with overseas jazz scenes led to important changes of his own jazz understanding. In this way, Conover is a good example for the fact that jazz exchange during the Cold war period was a mutual cultural transfer in both directions even if often the direction “back”, i.e. to the West, is neglected. Further research is needed in order to understand better how these communication processes worked.


  1. Terence Ripmaster: Broadcasting Jazz to the World. A Biography (New York: iUniverse, 2007).
  2. Willis Conover, in a manuscript for a VOA radio show, July 22/23 1993, [Conover papers, University of North Texas Denton (further: UNT), Box 38]
  3. So in John S. Wilson: “Who Is Conover? Only We Ask”, in: The New York Times Magazine, 13. September 1969.
  4. Michael Zverin: “The American father of E. European Jazz”, in: International Herald Tribune, 20. Dezember 1977.
  5. Stuart Nicholson: Is Jazz dead? (Or Hs It Moved to a New Address? New York and London: Routledge, 2005.
  6. Reinhold Wagnleitner: “Jazz – the Classical Music of Globalization”, in: Sebastian M. Herrmann et al. (ed.): Ambivalent Americanzations. Popular and Consumer Culture in Central and Eastern Europe, Heidelberg: Winter, 2008, p. 25- 50.
  7. Károly Libisch: „Szabó Gábor. Interview with Pauline Rivelli”, in: Jazz, August 1966, S. 8 – 10, see also Anna-gondolatok.blogspot.com/2010/08/szabo-gabor-magyar-dzessgitaros-ki-is.html
  8. Stephen A. Christ: “Jazz as Democracy? Brubeck and Cold War Politics”, in: The Journal of Musicology, 2009, vol. 26, p. 133-174.
  9. „Decades later, Conover mentioned this meeting as the beginning of his interest in Polish jazz, in: Ojciec chrzestny. Z Willisem Conoverem, najpopularniejszym prezenterem jazzu na świecie rozmawiają Witołd Jahołkowski i Feliks Szczyglewski”, in: Tu i Teraz, Nr. 44, november 2, 1983, p. 9.
  10. „This is the language the Conover myth tellers use up to the present day“, see e.g. Gene Lees: The Children of Willis Conover, in: Jazzletter, Vol. II No. 4, April 1992.
  11. Leonard Feather: The Jazz Years. Earwitness to an Era, London / New York: Quartet Books, 1986.
  12. Conover to John F. Kordek, August 8, 1994, [UNT Box 27].
  13. This clearly deconstructs a myth which was reproduced constantly by Conover’s listeners later. They claimed that Conover never had given political statements in his show, which, at least for the very beginning of it, is not true.
  14. American Jazz as a Weapon of Democracy, by The Honorable Frank Thompson, JR. (This article was written using material from an interview with Congressman Thompson conducted by Willis Conover for the Voice of America, undated [UNT Box 70].
  15. Margaret E. Urist, Foreign Affairs Division, 4. Mai 1956: American Jazz as a weapon of Democracy (A draft speech prepared according to the instructions of the Honorable Frank Thompson), [UNT Box 85].
  16. Willis Conover: Reflections on an Image, in HiFi / Stereo, July 1960, p. 27-32, here p. 32.
  17. See Francis Stonor Saunders: Who paid the piper?  The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, London: Granta, 1999.
  18. John Gennari, Blowin’ Hot And Cool: Jazz And Its Critics, University of Chicago Press, 2006,
  19. Feather, op. Cit., p. 198.
  20. Conover to Leonard Garment, Frank Shakespeare, Charles McWhorter: „A way to help people overseas to know America better, to our advantage and theirs“, manuscript october 7, 1969 [UNT Box 31].
  21. Conover in a working sheet, without date and place [UNT Box 42].
  22. Paul Henry Lang: “Music and Musicians. A ‘Don’t Buy American’ Art”, in: New York Herald Tribune. 25. September 1955.
  23. Henry Loomis: Interview with Willis Conover, undated [1965], p. 26 [UNT Box 92].
  24. E.g. Henry Pleasants: “America’s Impact on the Arts”: Music, in: The Saturday Review, 13. December 1975
  25. Henry Loomis: Interview with Willis Conover, undated [1965],  p. 32/33, [UNT Box 92].
  26. Marsha Siefert: “From Cold War to Wary Peace: American Culture in the USSR and Russia”, in: Alexander Stephan (ed.): The Americanization of Europe. Culture, Diplomacy, and Anti-Americanism after 1945, New York / Oxford: Berghahn, 2006, S. 185 – 217, here p. 191.
  27. Henry Loomis: Interview with Willis Conover, undated [1965], p. 15, [UNT Box 92].
  28. Willis Conover: answers to questions by Bill Starks, 15. April 1977, [UNT Box 13].
  29. Willis Conover: undated notice [UNT Box 42].
  30. Willis Conover: Manuscript “Prague”, without pagination, undated [1965], [UNT Box 98].
  31. Henry Loomis: Interview with Willis Conover, undated [1965], p. 36/37, [UNT Box 92].
  32. William Stokes, Interview with Conover, p. 19.
  33. Joachim Ernst Berendt: „Americans in Europe. A Dissident View“. In: Down Beat, 10. September 1964, p. 19
  34. Henry Loomis: Interview with Willis Conover, undated [1965], p. 8 f. [UNT Box 92].
  35. Berndt Ostendorf: “From Liberating Modernism to Subversive Reeducation: The Impact of Jazz on European Culture”, in: Americanization, Globalization – Education, ed. Gerhard Bach, Sabine Broeck, Ulf Schulenberg, Heidelberg 2003, p. 35-57
  36. Krystian Brodacki: Historia jazzu w Polsce, Kraków, p. 217.
  37. „Jazz i polska muzyka ludowa”, in: Jazz, 1971, Nr. 9, p. 6, 7, 12
  38. Roman Waschko to Conover, 17. October 1959, [UNT Box 33 Folder Letters RE Music USA].
  39. Rüdiger Ritter: „Jazz-Musiker als “Gründungsväter” für nationale Jazzszenen? Krzysztof Komeda und der polnische Jazz“, in: Albert Mangelsdorff. Tension. Spannung, ed. Wolfram Knauer, Darmstadt: Wolke, 2010 (= Darmstädter Beiträge zur Jazzforschung, Bd. 11), p. 29-50.
  40. Bill Benett: Interview with Conover, April 23, 1981, S. 2 [UNT Denton Box 93].
  41. Wolfram Knauer: “History or Histories? Why it is so difficult to draft a European jazz history”, in: Jakobsen, Thomas A. (ed.): 8th Nordic Jazz Conference 25th – 27th August 2009. Aalborg Universitet. Conference Report, Aalborg 2009, p. 1-28.