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Ordinary People Step Up to History's Microphone

October 26, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Like millions of daily commuters who have rushed through Grand Central Station before him, Olu Dara was running late. The Harlem jazz musician hustled through packed crowds, dashed up a narrow stairway and reached a small radio booth in the middle of the rail terminal's cavernous Vanderbilt Hall.

He entered, sat down and quietly began telling the story of his life.

"I was born in a small town in rural Mississippi," he said into a microphone Saturday, a look of tranquillity spreading over his face. "I've been lots of places."

For anyone who has experienced the noise and anonymous hurly-burly of Manhattan's historic station, the notion that people racing for trains would suddenly sit down and spill their innermost thoughts to a radio interviewer is bizarre.

But that is exactly what David Isay, a radio documentarian, had in mind when he convinced corporate sponsors and National Public Radio to launch the StoryCorps project, which opened its first branch last week. In a culture inundated with the stories of celebrities, he says, America needs to hear the recorded voices of ordinary people, because their lives and contributions are no less important.

"I love recorded sound, I love audio, and for me the soul is contained in the voice," Isay said. "So when people from all walks of life get a chance to come into this booth we've created, you close your eyes and listen to them, and it's amazing. It's an experience that can disappear unless you make a conscientious effort to capture it."

Isay is modeling his work after the oral interviews conducted by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Those sessions recorded fascinating moments in the lives of everyday Americans, and Isay's goal is to create a similar bank of personal recollections from the 21st century.

In the 1930s, teams of interviewers with microphones sought out people in their homes and at work across the nation. Now, Isay said, the idea is to bring people into a small recording center and empower them to conduct their own interviews.

The StoryCorps' box-like booth in Grand Central Station is equipped with two microphones, several chairs and a wall of recording equipment. People pay $10 for a 40-minute session, in which a friend or family member can interview them. They receive a compact disc of the session, and a duplicate goes to the Library of Congress. Under an agreement with National Public Radio, the most intriguing segments are selected for regional or national broadcast.

So far, scores of New Yorkers and other visitors have signed up for the chance to tell their life stories. A team of facilitators is available to help them select questions and make sure that the interview covers more than simple facts like the day someone was born, or how many children they've had and where they've gone to school.

"The idea is to get people talking about what's truly important," said Kimberly Stevens, the facilitator who sat in with Dara and his friend Steve DeBro, a recording company executive who agreed to be his interviewer. "You learn that everybody has something fascinating to say," Stevens said.

Isay, who has produced radio documentaries about children in Chicago housing projects, Bowery bums living in flophouses and Yiddish radio in America, scrambled to get the StoryCorps project off the ground. Finding money to operate the Grand Central booth, he said, "has been like a daily street fight."

Ultimately, the Rockefeller Corp., the Carnegie Foundation and others agreed to fund the project for a limited time, and Isay is betting that the initial results will impress supporters, enabling him to expand the project. He hopes to locate booths in Los Angeles and other cities, as well as rural areas, next year.

As Dara and DeBro got deeper into their interview, the jazz musician went back to his childhood. Outside, a jazz salsa band was booming music into the terminal, and thousands of people scurried past the booth. Strangers pressed their faces against the glass window, but Dara was oblivious.

He told of growing up black in the Mississippi Delta, angered by segregation but nurtured by a small, caring community. Pressed by his parents to become a doctor, he rebelled, joining the Navy in the early 1960s. He had learned how to play the trumpet, and joined the Navy's marching band.

"I remember, we played for John F. Kennedy's inauguration, and we were freezing that day," he said softly. "I held the horn in my hands; it was bitterly cold."

From there, Dara sailed to ports in the Caribbean and Africa. He told about how white sailors who had developed deep tans were classified as "colored" when their ship reached South Africa. "I had never seen a world like that," he said.

His travels finally took him to New York City, where he flirted with numerous jobs -- as a newspaper deliveryman, an X-ray assistant, a social worker -- before conceding that music was his passion. He played in the jazz loft scene, toured with jazz great Art Blakey, wrote stage music for playwright August Wilson, and recorded several albums.

Dara ended with this thought: "I'm 62 now, but I still think like I thought when I was 13, 14 years old." He said life has taught him "not to be ambitious, except for being healthy and trying to be as nice as I can."

The interview was "a really great thing," he said, adding that "the best thing is for other people to get the chance to talk about their lives too. You learn about yourself when somebody else listens. It makes you feel very special, like you matter."

With that, he was gone. Dara and DeBro shook hands, thanked Stevens and left. Anything but ordinary, they blended into the crowd and disappeared.

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