Back in the early '50s, before he became the jazz Voice of America, when Willis Conover was an all-purpose radio announcer with the only jazz program in town on WWDC (Felix Grant was there, too, but not doing jazz), he led a band. Sort of.
"Some musicians who had been on the road with Buddy Rich, Elliot Lawrence, Glenn Miller, etcetera, decided that, having come back to Washington, they wanted to play good music, get a band together," Conover recalls. "They approached me to serve as the emcee, advise them on programming." And of course, to hype the band on his show. Since Conover didn't play an instrument, they couldn't call it the Willis Conover Band; instead they settled on "Willis Conover presents THE Orchestra."
THE Orchestra eventually established a residency at the Club Kavakos, a 400-seat club (with a dance floor) at Eighth and H streets NE. They would frequently have guest artists on their Sunday afternoon programs, and a number of tapes made by Bill Potts, the band's principal arranger, have surfaced on the Elektra/Musician label over the last two years. The first album was culled from a 1953 Charlie Parker date that occurred after the fabled saxophonist failed to perform at a Conover-sponsored concert at the Howard Theater. "He kept drawing advances until he had all the money and then didn't show up," says Conover, who went on to become the mellifluous voice of jazz for the Voice of America. "Later after a contract squabble , Parker came down unannounced, with no rehearsal, walked in unadvertised and immediately began blowing. He didn't see a chart, he just listened and blew."
Following a Bud Powell-Charles Mingus album, Musician recently released another "One Night in Washington," featuring trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in a 1955 performance with THE Orchestra. Conover says he "asked Dizzy to do 'Manteca Suite' since retitled 'The Afro-Suite' . He sent down the parts and I brought them into a rehearsal that afternoon before he arrived, along with a record player and the record he had made. The parts were passed out and the musicians read them while I played the record. Then Dizzy showed up and we ran through a quick rehearsal."
THE Orchestra was hot, and even 28 years later, the music is an impressive swirl of energies. "When you're dealing in fundamentals, that goes a long ways," Gillespie says, adding that he expects this "one night" to sound good for another 25 years.