Willis Conover was known around the world, but not so much at home. He was the voice of jazz over the Voice of America for more than 40 years, most of it during the Cold War.
Imagine what it was like to sit in the dark of a hushed room in Prague, Moscow or Warsaw in the 1960s, fiddle with the dial of a shortwave radio, slide over crackles, pops, and jamming, to finally find the opening notes of “The A Train” and a rich baritone intoning slowly through the static, “Good evening. Willis Conover with Music USA … ”
He played the Count, the Duke, and Satchmo, Dizzy, Miss Sarah Vaughan and Charlie Parker.
Last week, I found myself in an Italian restaurant playing improvised jazz music with a few other musicians. Despite what it might sound like, I’m not a full-time musician. I’m actually CEO of a big data startup, a far cry from my musical moonlighting gig.
But as I played, I couldn’t help but connect the dots between the two roles. On paper, CEOs and jazz musicians may seem like they are on opposite ends of the spectrum and appear to have very little in common. We think of executives as rigid, driven, and all business, while musicians appear to be casual and more free spirited.
The great jazz trumpeter Buck Clayton would fondly recall his time in China in the 1930s, when jazz was the soundtrack to Shanghai.
Although jazz was massively popular in China during the 1920s and 1930s, it suffered greatly under Chairman Mao, who banned it out-right during the Cultural Revolution of the Sixties, decrying it as “capitalist, bourgeois decadence”.
A thaw began in the 1980s (when even George Melly played in Beijing) and has really taken hold in recent years, with a revival in many cities and the return of jazz festivals to places such as Changsha.
The groundswell is such that Blue Note, one of the world’s best-known jazz franchises, has announced an expansion to China as it banks on a growing appetite for live performances among moneyed consumers.