Though Holt didn’t come from a very musical family, he had a strong desire to learn the upright bass from the first time he heard one. “I first heard a bass at an assembly in junior high,” he explains. “I thought, ‘What’s that instrument? It sounds so cool.’” From that moment he was determined to learn.
Holt describes himself as self-motivated, probably partly due to his upbringing. An upright bass was beyond his means. “My father was retired from the Air Force and there wasn’t a lot of money,” says Holt. “Whenever we needed money we had to figure it out for ourselves. So, I went down to a pawn shop and picked up an electric bass and a couple of books and I figured it out.”
That type of self-motivation served him well as his career grew. “That’s kind of what you do as a newsperson,” says Holt. “You become an instant expert on things.” Like many recreational musicians, Holt’s music took a backseat after school ended. “I played in high school and into college, and when I got into TV, the bass got put in the closet. Every once in a while I would bring it out.”
As his family and career grew, taking him to New York, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and finally back to New York a third time to join MSNBC, Holt managed to find time here and there to rekindle his love for music.
“I still have my original pawn shop bass in my office,” he says. “The Aria is special because I got that when I was 17 and I still have the original amp that I bought when I was 15.”
He’s collected a few more basses along the way, including a Yamaha Silent Bass, a Gibson SG, and several Fenders.
“For me, different instruments have different sounds. That’s what I tell my wife, anyway, when she says, ‘How come you needed another bass?’” he jokes.
An Upright Move
Though those early electric basses hold a special place in Holt’s heart, he’d always yearned to play an upright, the instrument that first attracted him to the bass. “I love the sound,” he says. “We had an old upright at my high school, and I tried it a couple times, but the bridge was broken. Finally, when I moved back to New York City in 2000, I went down to 48th street and picked one up and struggled it onto the subway. I thought, how hard could this be? I just started figuring it out and playing it.”
Holt, 50, is humble about his achievements on the instrument. “I like people to imagine it’s pretty hard but if I can teach myself, it’s actually a pretty easy instrument,” he says. “I never had a lesson in my life. I’ve used a lot of books and DVDs.”
Along with the change in instrument, Holt’s musical tastes have evolved. “In high school I was all about big band stuff—Sammy Nestico, Count Basie, and Maynard Ferguson,” says Holt. “In the second act of my bass career with the upright I’ve been getting into more backhand vocal jazz, playing the standards.”
“I’m not a really great music reader,” says Holt. “Jazz is a great cover for someone like me, because you can really use your ears. When you’re playing, say symphonic classical music, you can’t really play by ear. I love the improvisation and jazz kind of puts me in a mood. I just love the sound of it. It takes me places and kind of unwinds me.”
At first, Holt just enjoyed playing the upright along to CDs in the comfort of his own home but it wasn’t long before he had a couple gigs.
“I was at a musician’s party and they asked everybody to bring an instrument,” says Holt. “I started playing and I met a singer, Cleve Douglass, and we hit it off. He asked me to come join him on some sets.”
“So, over the last few years, I’ve played here and there,” says Holt. “Sometimes it’s a couple songs or a full set. Cleve has kind of an Al Jarreau sound. It was fun for me. Whenever he calls me, I’m happy to play.”
As a professional musician, Douglass tours a lot and teaches, so lately there’s been less chance to play together. “I am sort of looking for opportunities,” says Holt. “Someone who kind of just lets me sit in to jam.” One such opportunity came earlier this year when Holt performed at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill with guitarist Woody Mann in a benefit for the New York City Parks Department Senior Citizens programs.
Time for Music
Like any recreational musician with a busy career, Holt often struggles to find time for music.
“There’s no consistent practice,” says Holt. “If I’m having a pretty slow month, I can yank the bass out and play for 15 or 20 minutes. But then I’ll be traveling, or on a story, and it collects dust. With an instrument like this, because of the physical nature of it, if I take a month off and come back, it seems so heavy. My fingers hurt and I’ve got to get the calluses back.”
Occasionally Holt wonders if he should take lessons. “It’s not that I’m being stubborn,” he explains. “I just can’t work lessons into my life. Also, it scares me that I’ve probably learned so many bad habits, but they’re working for me.”
Practice in any given week can mean just a few stolen moments between working. “I play the Aria when I’m bored,” he says. “At the network a lot of what we do is standby, where you have to be in the building in case news breaks. So sometimes I plug in the bass and try not to knock the walls down.”
“TV news is kind of all-encompassing; it kind of runs your life,” says Holt of his day job. “I’ve come to realize that everybody needs something else in their life other than their profession. When I’m in a club or playing somewhere, I’m playing with guys who are not TV people and probably don’t really watch me; it’s a different world. It’s Lester the bass player, not Lester the network newscaster.”
“What’s always funny is, at the end of the set, when they announce the musicians, and they say, ‘… and on bass Lester Holt,’” laughs Holt. “You always see a few people in the crowd who are like, ‘Of course, that was him! I knew he was familiar.’ But there’s that disconnect; they were thinking, why would he be standing back there?”
Though his busy career in broadcasting may eat into playing time, it does have its fringe benefits. “The benefits of the job are that I get to play with a lot of famous musicians, which is always a blast,” says Holt.
One pinnacle opportunity was a chance to sit in with idols Earth, Wind & Fire in 2008. “It wasn’t jazz, but that’s my music!” says Holt. “I had such a ball with those guys. I hung out with them before a concert in the Washington, DC-area and interviewed them. We talked about what a timeless group they are. Then, they allowed me to play with them during the sound check. It was pretty cool.”
“I even played with country and Western singer Clint Black,” says Holt. “We were doing a story on him down in Texas, and he said, ‘You play bass, I hear. Why don’t you come up and jam with us?’ So I thought we were going to play country and Western music. Instead, the band wanted to play funky soul stuff. We had a great time.”
Holt’s connection with NBC Studios even led to his first-ever professional music recording session at famed Capitol Records—an experience he says he never could have imagined. He recorded with actors Greg Grunberg and Hugh Laurie for their charity group Band from TV. “They were doing the soundtrack for the TV show House, which is produced and owned by NBC Universal,” explains Holt. “The regular bass player couldn’t make it. Somebody knew that I played bass. So the next thing I know I’m flying out to L.A. We had a great day!”
“One of the songs on the soundtrack was an arrangement Hugh did of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’” says Holt. “We also did a great arrangement of ‘Minnie the Moocher.’ I not only play bass on it, but I also did a vocal part where I do a newscast. It was fun.”
Back to School
Truly a down-to-earth personality, when asked to recall his favorite music making memories, Holt doesn’t reminisce about all of the famous musicians he’s had a chance to meet. Instead, he recalls those early days of exploring his passion for music in high school, where he played in the jazz band and sang in the jazz choir.
“I have great memories in high school,” says Holt. “The high school jazz festivals and the competitions were great. We’d sit there and they would post the scores. Reno International Jazz Festival was the big one and it was always a blast. We would get on the bus and go, and play our hearts out. We were a pretty hot band in high school.”
In 2004 Holt had a chance to return to his alma mater during a TODAY show series that brought the anchors back to their high schools. “Since music was a big part of my school experience I visited the band room and rehearsed with the jazz band,” says Holt. He’s happy to report that the school has since replaced its broken upright. Holt had brought his own electric just in case.