In response to “All In Favor Of A Willis Conover Stamp, Say Aye,” by Doug Ramsey (May 10, 2015 artsjournal.com), and as suggested by MC on Facebook, I am contributing the below note in an effort to help give a great American and internationalist his historical due:
A question I much hoped I would never be asked, while posted in Eastern/Central Europe as an FSO (Foreign Service Officer) for some twenty years during and after the Cold War:
“John – We love Willis Conover’s jazz program over the Voice of America. Tell us, what do they think about him in the United States?” (Millions of people the world over listened to his program, including 30 million in Eastern Europe).
What would I be expected to say, as a diplomat officially representing our country abroad? That VOA musical “propaganda” was OK overseas, but not in the USA?
For, according to the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, VOA broadcasts were limited to international audiences, keeping Americans in the dark about its programming. (This restriction was lifted by Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, put into effect in 2013).
So, while Willis was an admired celebrity overseas, practically no one knew about him in our very own USA.
Image from, with caption:Willis Conover with Ella Fitzgerald
Indeed, he was never a full-time VOA employee but, as The New York Times put it in an obituary (May 19, 1996), he was “an independent contractor” who “had his share of run-ins with Voice of America officials but never backed down.”
It’s high time for Americans to honor Willis by a U.S. Postal service stamp in recognition for all he did, through the beauty of music for over forty years, to share America’s cultural achievements with the rest of our small planet.
As Cultural Affairs Officer in Moscow (1998-2001), John Brown helped organize, with VOA and Russian partners, a two-day jazz festival to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Willis Conover’s death. In 1983-1985, while posted in Prague, Brown held several jazz concerts at his residence and was in contact with the Jazz Section.