DENTON (UNT), Texas - University of North Texas special collections librarian, Maristella Feustle, is helping to bring the story of famed Voice of America radio host and jazz promoter, Willis Conover, to life by making the Willis Conover Collection recordings, photos and film available to the public online through digitization and at the UNT Music Library. The collection attracts worldwide interest and research requests.
The collection was donated to the UNT Music Library in part because of Conover’s connection with the UNT One O’Clock Lab Band dating back to the early 1960s. Conover was impressed with the band and often featured Lab Band recordings on his international broadcast.
Conover (1920-1996) was a jazz producer, concert promoter and broadcaster who helped keep interest in jazz alive in Eastern Europe during the Cold War through his nightly radio show on Voice of America that broadcast jazz music to communist nations where the music was restricted in various degrees. Conover almost never talked politics during his radio program. He let the music do the talking and connected people in estranged countries, drawing them together by cultivating a community of dedicated fans.
Although Conover is renowned for his work during the Cold War, his contributions to the integration of the Washington, D.C. nightclub scene and advocacy for African American musicians is a story Feustle wants more people to know.
“Willis Conover played a major role in desegregating the Washington, D.C. nightclub scene, making major jazz venues and concerts available to all,” said Feustle. “Conover’s concerts in the late 1940s were among the first integrated downtown club events. He insisted that any concert he promoted would admit any ticket holder regardless of race even though local law prohibited “racial mixing” in Washington D.C. clubs.”
Conover’s programs on the Washington D.C. radio station WWDC in the late 1940s, featured interviews with jazz giants like Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. Conover promoted and emceed concerts for these jazz greats and many of these recordings and photos now reside in the collection at UNT.