On Tuesday April 29th, the sounds of live jazz rang out in the Voice of America auditorium. A concert was held to celebrate a studio dedication in honor of our own legendary Jazz producer and broadcaster Willis Conover.
Two groups were featured, the U.S. Navy Band Commodores and yours truly, Heather Maxwell and my trio. The video clip below features our performance and is introduced by VOA Music Director Eric Felton, an accomplished jazz musician himself.
Russian bassist, Victor Dvoskin opens our set with a powerful personal narrative about his special relationship to Willis followed by the instrumental “Just Squeeze Me.” Robert Jospé is on drums and Bob Hallahan on keys. I then join the guys to sing “Autumn Leaves”, “Cry Me A River”, “Girl From Ipanema”, and “Body and Soul”.
It felt fabulous singing on this occasion for my fellow VOA colleagues and with my cats. I regularly gigged and toured with them in Virginia from 2006-2010. As a true American art form, jazz is a historic and living treasure.
After our performance, we heard from our esteemed Director David Ensor and then watched this VOA documentary produced especially for the occasion. It tells the story of how Willis Conover’s daily VOA broadcast “Jazz Hour” was the driving force behind the explosion of jazz worldwide. For many, Conover’s American jazz was the only exposure to music from the West. It was especially meaningful for those like Victor Dvoskin who tuned in from from his basement behind the Iron Curtain.
The U.S. Navy Band Commodores played the afternoon out with a swinging set of big band favorites including the Duke Ellington tune “A Train”. The day of the concert April 29th also celebrated the Duke’s birthday.
As a final note, although this concert for Willis sounded little to nothing like African music, it’s no secret that the deepest ancestral roots of jazz are originally West African. Syncopated beats, cross rhythms, call and response, and improvisation are musical proof of this kinship. “Jazz Hour” surely helped repatriate jazz back to it’s West African homelands which, in turn, spurred new innovative forms of mid-twentieth century music like Afrocuban, Congolese Rumba, Hi-life, and Afrobeat. Today, these styles are African classics and fodder for today’s artists to continue jazz’s evolution.