Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Rick Barnes Facebook entry on Maristella Feustle, VOA and the world's greatest purveyor of jazz -- Willis Conover

Musician Extraordinaire Rick Barnes on Facebook:

Conover image from, which contains information on the Conover Collection

On Thursday [Feb. 25], I [Barnes] had a most enjoyable lunch and an interesting conversation with my Facebook friend Maristella Feustle. Maristella is a librarian in the music library of the University of North Texas, one of America's preeminent jazz institutions, at Denton. Originally from Toledo and a graduate of the University of Toledo, Maristella holds a masters degree in music from the University of North Texas and is a jazz guitar player.

Maristella is doing good things for America and, in particular, the Voice of America - VOA as the curator of the Willis Conover collection
. During the Cold War, Willis was the world's greatest purveyor of jazz. Nightly, he would broadcast jazz music to the the world on VOA with a geographical focus on those living behind the Iron Curtain, in Cuba and in Southeast Asia living under communist rule. His programs would be replete with live interviews with jazz performers and luminaries.

Why did VOA choose to broadcast jazz to the world during the Cold War? Willis famously said:

"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."

So the VOA literally taught what freedom was all about to people who had never experienced it throughout the world by using jazz music as the vehicle for the demonstration of what freedom sounded like.

Willis never was a federal government employee like most people working at the VOA. Rather, he was a contractor. Therefore, none of the material that he produced -- scripts, tapes of live programs and interviews, pictures, memorabilia, etc. -- was considered as U.S. federal government property. Unlike most of us at the VOA who are federal government employees, he personally owned all of the product he produced.

When Willis passed away, his estate donated all of his personal materials from the VOA to the University of North Texas where it is now stored along with other national treasures such as the hand-written original parts from the band books of Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson.

Maristella now spends her days cataloging and classifying Willis' materials. She also has undertaken a huge product of significantly improving the sound quality of the open reel tapes of Willis' radio programs on VOA and then storing them as digital data.

I met Maristella on Thursday as she took a break from research she was pursing at the Library of Congress as part of a conference she was attending in Washington, DC on radio preservation, which is exactly what she is doing at the University of North Texas with the Willis Conover collection.

I learned from Maristella that one of the speakers at the conference is yet another of my Facebook friends, Thomas Witherspoon. Thomas is the director of an NGO called "Ears To Our World," which distributes and proliferates shortwave radio receivers to the politically and economically disenfranchised people of the world. I heard Thomas speak a few years ago during the annual meeting of the National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters at the Radio Free Asia building in Washington, DC. During that meeting, Thomas made a compelling case that shortwave radio is still the most effective means to provide educational materials to the populations most in need. I'm sure Maristella will learn a lot from Thomas' briefing and lecture this week.

It was a joy for me to meet one of my new-found Facebook friends face to face and to have lunch together at the Capitol Hill Club. Thanks, Maristella, for all that you are doing for the VOA by preserving the Willis Conover collection at the University of North Texas.

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