“I’ve discovered my inner rocker”

Anchorman Lester Holt on how playing in a band helps him leave the news behind. 

“I’ve discovered my inner rocker”

Illustration: Loveis Wise

I was always drawn to the bass—as far back as junior high school I remember hearing a live band perform Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” and I thought, “That’s a really cool bassline.” From then on I started listening to the bottom end of songs, hearing those really cool lines and how they kind of hold the entire song together. Then, I started playing. I never really had formal lessons and was primarily playing by ear, especially when I started listening to jazz. That’s still my preferred style of music, although now I’ll play anything from country to rock ‘n’ roll.

Fast forward to a couple years ago, when some friends here at NBC and I formed a group, The Rough Cuts. Virtually everybody in the band is an editor with Dateline, with a couple of exceptions, so with that number of tape editors we thought, Rough Cuts? Nice little name. We play mostly rock ‘n’ roll—everything from The Rolling Stones to Bruno Mars and Pat Benatar. On Mondays, we’ll sneak out of here for an hour and a half and play. We all have day jobs in a pretty demanding business, so when we book a gig, it’s always with a proviso: We’ll be there unless there’s breaking news.

In the process, though, I’ve kind of discovered my inner rocker, and the band has become a stress reliever. Being a news anchor is a highly demanding job. It’s refreshing to have another passion, something that you can step into and not be Lester Holt the anchorman but Lester Holt the musician.

In some ways, news and performing intersect: Jazz is sometimes about going with the flow and trying to figure out rhythms, and when you’re doing breaking news, it’s kind of the same thing. Yesterday, I was in the anchor chair covering a breaking story. I’m adding what I can here and adding what I can there. It’s very much like playing jazz: You’re presented with different chords and trying to respond to what your fellow musicians are playing. You add something here and you add something there and, hopefully, it comes out as a recognizable tune.

With both jazz and breaking news you’re in a position where you’ve got nothing prepared. All you have is your experience and your knowledge that this chord will sound one way and this note another. When we’re doing breaking news, it’s very much the same way—relying on your experience covering other major stories and adding in those bits of knowledge.

In many ways, I try to keep two separate lives. I’m the anchor at NBC Nightly News and that’s an incredible job. But that doesn’t fully define who I am. I’ve got a multi-faceted personality and part of that is being a lover of music and a musician. Sometimes the lines cross. When you’re out there on the stage with your friends and people are having a good time, playing music goes beyond a stress buster. It just makes you—and others—feel good. And I think right now we could all use something to make us feel good.

Lester Holt is the anchor for NBC Nightly News, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this month.