Thursday, September 24, 2015

Willis Conover's VOA Jazz Program: Its Reception in Eastern Europe -- A Facebook discussion

Question for jazz fans and its impact (especially via Willis Conover on the Voice of America [see] in Eastern Europe and the USSR during the Cold War (especially during its early years): Was jazz, to these politically oppressed audiences behind the Iron Curtain, the sound of freedom (as is generally believed) or the sound of suffering (the population of these countries were, like blacks in the U.S., victims of an unfair political system)? In the case of the USSR, whose slave-citizens arguably never experienced "Western-style" freedom, the notion that jazz was the music of suffering -- and spiritual liberation from suffering -- (suffering which Soviet citizens experienced constantly, given the deprivations and humiliation they endured from those in power) might be especially applicable ... In other words, did audiences in Russia (especially before de-Stalinization) empathize, when listening to "forbidden jazz" over the VOA, with American blacks suffering ("in the Workers' Paradise, we are like American slaves on plantations"), rather than with a "freedom" which in fact these audiences did not enjoy -- or had ever experienced (as American slaves had not). Soviet propaganda may have contributed to this opinion in Russia (jazz as suffering) in that the regime's propaganda constantly underscored how blacks in the U.S. were an oppressed "nationality" exploited/trampled upon in a merciless "Uncle Sam" capitalist state.
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    • Maristella Feustle Here's my take -- a few random thoughts, numbered for clarity: 1. Jazz allowed people under a totalitarian regime a slice of existence that was not under the thumb of the regime -- something so normal, and yet so dangerous, but it was a moment of intellectual freedom. 2. The fact that Music USA was completely apolitical had to be a breath of fresh air anyplace where "the revolution" was intended to permeate every aspect of human existence. 3. The fact that regimes were threatened by a guy in glasses spinning records halfway across the world made them look silly and weak, with priorities vastly out of order. 4. Part of the "social contract" of jazz that reflects the society that it grew out of is that it is born of free association, and also capable of reform and change: If something is wrong, you can say so and expect something to be done about it, or walk away You don't have to pretend everything is perfect. 5. Willis didn't censor the protest angle of jazz: There's a long memo in his papers about the decision not to exclude "Malcom, Malcom, Semper Malcolm" from a broadcast. As always, actions spoke louder than words in demonstrating the advantages of a free society.
      • John Brown Maristella -- Thank you for getting back. Much food for thought in your comments. But the USG slogan about jazz during the Cold War -- "the music of freedom" -- seems quite ironic, given that the "music of freedom" was performed by many persons who were second-class citizens in the USA, some of whom were sent overseas by the State Department to promote American democracy through music (although the musicians themselves would not necessarily agree with this).
      • Maristella Feustle Branding/commodification is always problematic, especially when it involves mainstream appropriation of something that started as counterculture. There will always be a tension and an irony there. If nothing else, though, it was an inconsistency the U....See More
      • John Brown

    • Marie Ciliberti Agree with Maristella's analysis above especially the fact that Willis's jazz programs were technically apolitical although personally he himself was not. An element of this attraction to his programs was the forbidden fruit aspect of jazz as there w...See More
    • Marie Ciliberti My friend in Kiev, whose mother was a CPSU official, had access to western magazines and music (zolotaya molodezh). His favorite: Louis Armstrong. Why? Because of the unbounded joy of his music in a sometimes joyless society. My musician friends in Moscow were trained classical musicians intrigued by the ability to wander from the written notes to which they were bound in the conservatory to create compositions of their own through improvisation and so they gathered in private, listened to this 'new' forbidden music with intense interest and created their own little world. A Moscow friend of mine had a ritual when listening to Conover's programs where he would make his tea with the accompanying jam and retreat to his bedroom where he would spend the hour listening to Willis's VOA jazz program in solitude and retreat into another world with its mystery, haunting beauty, complexity yet accessibility. It was the sheer beauty and originality of the music which touched their hearts and in a spiritual sense, even their souls in that officially atheist society, leading them to question basic elements of the ideology which they were spoon-fed from their earliest years. That was the 'danger' of his programs.
      • Maristella Feustle Yes! The idea that joy emanating from something other than approved sources is subversive underscores the oppressive absurdity of a so-called "people's" government. (If they have to tell you it's a democratic people's republic, it probably isn't.)

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    • Marie Ciliberti Re: jazz as the music of suffering blacks >> as the reason for its attraction to the musicians of the USSR and captive nations. The music of New Orleans, one of the places where jazz developed, was certainly infused with the blues but also with vibrant joyousness (When the Saints Go Marching In and many other classic tunes). And Glenn Miller's big band music could not be characterized as the music of suffering blacks yet his music enjoyed great popularity in the USSR, especially Sunrise Serenade. Dave Brubeck did not play music which could be described as the product of the suffering black American population nor did the music of Bix Beiderbecke. Stan Getz, another favorite in Eastern Europe & the USSR (Ukrainian descent BTW) would not be an example either. Basically, jazz reflected freedom whichever way a person understood that term but also individuality especially in an orchestra where there would be solo performers.
    • John Brown Marie -- Excellent points. I regrettably don't have the musical competence to distinguish professionally between blues and jazz. In such an ignorance, I speculate, I share the non-specialized knowledge of Russian listeners to Willis's great jazz programs during the early Cold War. Still, as I listen to jazz (from, at nostalgic times, the perspective of my considerable years in Russia), I think that its appeal to the Russian dusha (ok, such a vague entity may not exist) in the early Cold War was a mixture (to simplify) of its musical/religious rendering of suffering and resurrection, not necessarily of "Western" definitions of political freedom. Could Russians in the early Cold War have listened to Willis and his memorable programs -- essentially because of the "suffering/redemptive" soul it expressed musically (and don't we have "soul music" in America, as we Americans call it now?) than because Russian "secret VOA listeners" "loved" the Eisenhower's administration's definition of "freedom"?
    • Marie Ciliberti Jazz is a hybrid of various musical genres: the blues, spirituals (Let My People Go), work songs (call & response), French quadrilles, ragtime. African rhythms, etc that somehow melded into that wonderfully special music we call jazz. Different flavors, combinations, influences and styles played first by New Orleans musicians who traveled up the Mississippi to Chicago and all ports in-between. Yes, it is a spiritual music (and yes, there is a mystical russkaya dusha) and it appealed greatly to a people who were told from childhood by their government that there was no such thing. The first jazz/swing group to appear in the USSR was the Benny Goodman orchestra in 1962 (not long after our USIA exhibit, Plastics-USA) which was during Kennedy's and not Eisenhower's administration. Benny Goodman had traveled on State Department tours previously with the most successful being to Thailand where he met & jammed with jazz fan/musician King Bhumibol.
    • Marie Ciliberti Think that we may have the start of a book here, Professor John Brown. Don't know whether or not we settled anything. But I'm sure that Maristellamight write about it in the biography she's planning to do on Willis Conover. For now, do svidaniya.
    • Pat Kushlis I certainly can't comment on the early period but by the time I worked in Moscow (78-80) jazz was seen as Marie and Maristella describe so eloquently. Jazz did represent a kind of freedom, of personal release and experimentation, of vicariously tasting the forbidden fruit, it was also performed or played by Soviet musicians with extensive classical music training and visiting American performers who we sponsored were always SRO. I heard it played by Soviets in unofficial concerts and also in the home. The people I knew who played it and listened to it did not see it as a part of the "suffering/redemptive" experience. Quite the opposite.
    • Joe Bruns Jazz is all about individual expression. Each musician brings his or her own interpretation of the basic theme, which is woven into a compositional framework. What could be further from the concept of collectivism/Communism?
      • John Brown Joe -- Will all due respect, this "further from the concept of collectivism/Communism" is not (I would suggest) what jazz meant to many Russians during the early Cold War listening en cachette to Willis's extraordinary broadcasts in their kitchens. It...See More
      • Joe Bruns John, you know Russia and Russians far better than I. Just conjecture on my part.
      • Maristella Feustle Regarding musical laments, I found the bit from Shostakovich's "memoirs" (depending on who you ask) that this discussion reminded me of. Maybe the language of jazz gave expression to something approved channels couldn't.
    • Marie Ciliberti Re: individual expression. The comment above by Joe Bruns does capture an important facet of jazz, that is, the collective vs the individual. Every once in awhile, Willis would take a standard like My Favorite Things and would then play it in the rendition of many different musicians: first, a vocal as performed in the play/film Sound of Music, perhaps by Ella Fitzgerald, followed by the Dave Brubeck interpretation which was in total contrast with the nuances that an innovator like John Coltrane would bring to it, then an orchestral version.... Same song but markedly different in the interpretation of an array of many different musicians, each of whom brought something different to the interpretation. Willis never had to lecture about freedom or individuality. It was all there in the music and the message was not lost on those listeners who were looking for it.
    • Rick Barnes From everyone I've talked to that lived through the Cold War in Eastern Europe (to include discussions on the air with fellow ham radio operators who escaped from Eastern Europe and actually listened to Willis before their escapes), jazz was the sound of freedom at a visceral level. It spoke to freedom in a way that words could not. It described freedom in a way that people could understand what it was even though they never experienced it in there lives.

      When I spoke to the members of the West Point Band's "Jazz Knights" big band (I am an alumnus of that band) before they went on stage as the opening act for the first ever Willis Conover concert in the Cohen building in downtown Washington, DC a few years ago, I said to my former bandmates, "Every time you play an improvised solo you are describing to people what freedom sounds like. You can play whatever notes you want with whatever phrasing you want that is consistent with the chord structure and style of the piece (or not). And when people hear you do that, they will intuitively understand what freedom sounds like and what the experience of freedom is all about."

      I found this GREAT Willis Conover quote in several sources and I used it in my paper that I wrote for Prof. Nicholas John Cull when I was working on my post-doctoral certificate program in public diplomacy at the University of Southern California in the summer of 2010.

      "Jazz is a classical parallel to our American political and social system. We agree in advance on the laws and customs we abide by and, having reached agreement, we are free to do whatever we wish within these constraints. It's the same with jazz. The musicians agree on the key, the harmonic changes, the tempo and the duration of the piece. Within those guidelines, they are free to play what they want. And when people in other countries hear that quality in the music, it stimulates a need for the same freedom in the conduct of their lives." (Cull, 1996; Cull, 2008, pp. 107-108; Heil, 2003, p. 288; Von Eschen, 2004, pp. 16-17)

      In his book "Voice of America: A History" Alan Heil said:

      "The music [jazz] stirred souls in countries where it was officially considered “decadent” or “forbidden fruit.” …In faraway Valadivostok, the Russian Far East, VOA monitor and jazz enthusiast Taroslav Balagush wrote on learning of Willis’ death that his program was “the first radio school of jazz for Russia. …Its graduates are still grateful to Mr. Conover for teaching them jazz long distance, although a great part of his pupils never saw their teacher in person.” (pp. 290 – 291)

      Heil (2003) also provides a glimpse into Conover’s mind when he quotes Conover’s words concerning his thoughts on the connection between, freedom, democracy and jazz: “Every emotion – love, joy, anger, sadness,” he once said, “can be communicated with the vitality and spirit that characterizes jazz and our country at its best. Which, of course, is the same freedom that people everywhere should enjoy.” (p. 291)

      When writing about Willis Conover, associate professor of History and African-American Studies at the University of Michigan, Dr. Penny Von Eschen (2004), said:

      "It is tempting – and not altogether inaccurate – to claim that Conover was a figure of unparalleled importance in the spread of jazz and in its relationship to the Cold War foreign policy. Indeed, when Conover died in 1996, his New York Times obituary proclaimed him as the most widely known and loved American in the world; it further suggested Conover had played a major role in bringing about the collapse in Communism – a claim that Conover himself had proudly embraced. …Tapes of VOA jazz broadcasts sold for as much as forty rubles (forty-four dollars) on the Moscow black market in 1962. The Egyptian weekly Al Zaa declared that “Conover’s daily program had won the United States more friends than any other daily activity.” (pp. 13-14)"

      While jazz is, in fact, an amalgamation of Western European harmony and African rhythms, which were first stirred together as an aural gumbo in New Orleans, the value it had as a public diplomacy tool during the Cold War as it was thrust over the Iron Curtain by Willis Conover on the Voice of America was as a vehicle to describe freedom of expression in the West more that any notion of racial oppression in America.
      • John Brown

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    • Rick Barnes Satchmo or Dulles ??

      smile emoticon

    • Bj Certain This is the piece that would have expressed black suffering and oppression with a hope for redemption. Written by Sam Cooke in 1963 after being refused lodging i...See More

      A slideshow of African-American history cut to the song "A Change is Gonna Come" by Sam...
    • John Brown To all participants in this discussion: Do you mind if I post it (the discussion, with your names), in my "Notes and Essays" blog If I don't hear from you within two days, I'll assume it's ok with you. Best, john
    • Marie Ciliberti John! Why did you post in triplicate? Or has your computer run wild?
    • John Brown Marie - The computer went wild ... btw, how reliable do you consider the above article?
    • Bj Certain Not only has jazz fallen from grace, the blues is largely shunned by black audiences. Slave music, they say.
    • Bj Certain Today, the audience for blues is overwhelmingly white. I wonder when I see the phenomenal blues guitarist Buddy Guy perform, for instance, how he must feel when he looks out upon a 99% white audience and knows that his own race has abandoned the genre it created. Rap, hip-hop and all of its many sub-genres are dominant now in the black community.
    • Marie Ciliberti John, I would look at the comments to the article which dispute the findings in the article, some very well expressed. Willis often called jazz the classical music of the 20th century and its best composers and performers, such giants as Ellington, Basie, Satchmo, Bill Evans, Django, Getz, Coltrane, many others, will endure just as Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, the best of the best from centuries before them endured. Jazz has now morphed into what Willis always dreamed of - a global music with performers all over the world. Wynton Marsalis enjoys a great following and his concerts at the Lincoln Center are very well-attended. Paquito is doing amazing things with his fusion of Latin music, classical and jazz. Festivals are still immensely popular in the U.S. Sadly, there are no longer people like George Avakian and the Ertugun brothers heading up the record companies and distributors are hawking hip/hop and other genres to make a buck. Jazz has always appealed to a more musically sophisticated audience like classical music and opera. But to say that all three of them are dead is just not true.
      • Bj Certain The comments on the article are, indeed, informative. One surprise is to see Jazz referred to as Art Music, implying an elite genre as opposed to popular or populist. A commenter pointed out that Jazz was most popular in the 30's and 40's when it was primarily dance music.
        LikeReply14 hrs
      • John Brown Have always been intrigued by the origin of the word "jazz"; given (correct?) that it has roots in New Orleans, up to a point still (?) a French-speaking town; I note that in another North American French-speaking area, in our dear neighbor Canada, "jazzer" refers to conversation/chit-chat .... Your thoughts on this linguistic matter welcome.
        LikeReply113 hrsEdited
      • Maristella Feustle The earliest known uses of "jazz" (confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary and digitized historical newspapers) came up in the sports pages, primarily on the West Coast (I gave a paper partly on this in June), in the San Francisco Bay area. OED says 1912, Grove says 1913; I was able to find one from June of 1913.
        LikeReply14 hrsEdited
      • Maristella Feustle In the sports context, it was used to convey pep/energy/liveliness, which kind of makes sense...
        LikeReply14 hrs
    • Marc Vincent Schanz Not directly related, but as a lifelong fan and unapologetic preacher of the gospel of 'American Music,' for my money there have been few more exemplary books written on why African American music is so entwined in both our culture and national identity than C. Werner's "A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America." It is accessible and sweeping, tracing half the 20th Century from Mahalia Jackson to Miles Davis to Bruce Springsteen to Tupac Shakur. I commend it to anyone seeking to read up on the subject.

1 comment:

Rick Barnes said...

THANKS for reposting our Facebook discussion Dr. John!


Rick Barnes