Art Talk with Soledad O'Brien
Well, tonight's the night you've all been waiting for: the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony and Concert. Before you tune into our webcast—broadcast live from Jazz at Lincoln Center at 7:30 p.m. EST—we thought we'd introduce you to Soledad O'Brien, who will be co-hosting the event with 2011 NEA Jazz Master Wynton Marsalis. O'Brien has led a distinguished career in broadcast journalism, and has worked as an anchor and correspondant on networks such as CNN, NBC, HBO, and Al-Jazeera America. She is currently the chairman of Starfish Media Group, and runs the Soledad O'Brien and Brad Raymond Foundation with her husband, which provides college scholarships to young women struggling with personal or financial obstacles. A jazz enthusiast, O'Brien also serves on the board of directors of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, run by National Council of Arts member Irvin Mayfield, Jr. We chatted with O'Brien by e-mail about jazz, arts education, and her dream artist interview. Here's what she had to say:
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: I've always been in the arts—painting and dance classes as a small child, symphonic and marching band as a flautist in high school. I was decent—not particularly gifted—but I remember it always being fun. The camaraderie of traveling with band, the performances before family members. I learned early on that the arts are for everyone to explore and enjoy. And I learned early on that there were huge benefits to this exploration in the way I thought about myself, and frankly in how I was able excel and achieve in high school academics.
NEA: You have over the course of your career interviewed many high-profile people. Is there an artist—past or present—who you would like to (or would have liked to) interview and why?
O'BRIEN: I'd love to interview Wynton Marsalis. We're friendly, so it's kind of ironic that I haven't had a chance to sit down with him for a long, thoughtful conversation (on tape). I saw a piece that 60 Minutes did with him in Cuba and (because of my Afro-Cuban roots) I had so many questions to ask him!
NEA: You are very involved with education causes. Why is it important that the arts are part of every student's education?
O'BRIEN: My husband and I run a foundation that sends deserving young women, most of whom are struggling financially, to and through college. We have four small children as well, so we are constantly thinking about education, from "Argh, do your homework, already!" to "How do I engage our scholars, and our children, to become lifelong learners?" I want my kids to not just memorize multiplication tables but understand what it means to think about what multiplication means. And how knowing more—and understanding more—can open one's eyes to both history and future opportunities. I think the arts are the bridge that make a well-rounded, thoughtful human being. I think the arts allow students to create, and explore creativity, which is really another way of discovering your own potential.
NEA: You are very engaged with documentary filmmaking. What do you like about using this form, as opposed to other forms of journalistic storytelling?
O'BRIEN: Documentaries give you the gift of time. I used to be frustrated by the "sound bite" culture of TV news, but it was always framed as keeping it tight to keep the audience engaged. When I started producing documentaries I quickly realized that viewers want stories. They want to understand, they want to be mired in a narrative so they can feel the humanity of people they might not ever meet in their own daily lives. Documentaries have the ability to change lives and inspire people to go and DO in a way that short pieces just can't. It feels like a gift when you can spend so much time digging into someone's life and story, and then sharing a lot of it with an audience.
NEA: How did you fall in love with jazz?
O'BRIEN: I guess I fell in love with New Orleans first! I was covering Katrina in 2005 and really fell in love with the beauty, and the challenges of New Orleans, the people there, the history, the contradictions. It really is where I began to listen to jazz for the first time! My dad loved jazz. He'd take me to the Knitting Factory in NYC when I was a child and we'd listen to experimental jazz. I was probably nine or ten (checking IDs clearly wasn't such a big deal then!). I'll be honest—I thought some of it was torture! Just noise. But when I started listening to New Orleans jazz I felt that I understood the storytelling in the music. That the emotions I was feeling connected me to a place that was quickly becoming my second home. I spent so much time in New Orleans that people would say, "You're from here, right?", which to me was the biggest compliment. As a biracial woman growing up in a white community in Long Island, New York, usually people—even in your own hometown—said, "Where are you from?" In New Orleans I felt as if I found the place where I belonged! Jazz seemed to be the soundtrack of that comfortable feeling of home. Where some of the music at the Knitting Factory felt incomprehensible, New Orleans jazz felt like it was talking directly to me—and even better, wanted me to shout something back, or get up and dance. I loved it. A couple of years ago Irvin Mayfield, who's the founder and artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, asked me to join his board of directors, and I was honored to. I've expanded my musical tastes, and continue to.
NEA: What's your elevator pitch for the importance of jazz in the 21st century?
O'BRIEN: Jazz is American history. Jazz asks you to participate. Jazz defines democracy—everyone is an individual and yet, they've got to come together to make something amazing—without losing what they bring as an individual. And listening to jazz is a great experience—it's on in my home all the time.
NEA: At the NEA, we say "art works," meaning a number of things, including works of art themselves, the way art works on us as human beings, and to acknowledge that artists are workers. What does the phrase "art works" mean to you?
O'BRIEN: I love the phrase "Art Works" because it can be understood so many ways. Artworks, of course, is the literal, tangible thing that is created. And art "works" because it DOES something. Art is literally engaging minds and pushing boundaries and challenging expectations and confounding people and bringing up emotions—it's WORKING in our lives. The third way to read that phrase is in the work of the artists themselves. Irvin [Mayfield] told me, many years ago, that one goal of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra was not just the employment of musicians, but to create employment so worthwhile that a musician wouldn't have to also drive a bus, or work at a reception desk, to make a decent living. That the industry could support people who want to dedicate their lives to making art.