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Late-Night Virtuoso

While millions know him through his lighthearted banter with comedian and former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, guitarist Kevin Eubanks '79 takes his music very seriously.


 
  NBC Photo: Paul Drinkwater

Guitarist Kevin Eubanks is in a dressing room at NBC Studios in Burbank, CA, shortly before the taping of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. It's early May, a few weeks before Leno's much-publicized handoff of the show's hosting chores to comedian compatriot Conan O'Brien. There's no hint that Eubanks feels any butterflies in the half-hour before he is to go onstage before 5 million-plus TV viewers and the hundreds sitting in the studio audience. His calm demeanor makes sense. He's got his role down. Eubanks has been Leno's bandleader and comic foil five nights a week for the past 14 years.

In 1992, at the outset of Branford Marsalis's three-year stint as the bandleader for the Tonight Show Band, the saxophonist plucked Eubanks from the New York jazz scene to play guitar in the band. Then, in 1995, Eubanks took over Marsalis's post.

Marsalis and Eubanks had some history of making music together. They met at Berklee and continued to play and record after Eubanks left the college in 1979. Throughout the 1980s, Eubanks toured and recorded with such jazz luminaries as Slide Hampton, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, Gary Thomas, Buster Williams, Dave Grusin, Ron Carter, and others.

By 1982, Eubanks was releasing albums as a leader for the Elektra, Blue Note, and GRP labels. His recordings showcase his multifaceted guitar explorations in his own straight-ahead jazz, fusion, avant-acoustic, and soft-jazz compositions. His distinctive finger-style guitar technique allows him to slip seamlessly between fleet-fingered jazz lines and chordal work, screaming rock licks, funk-rhythm chomping, and meditative arpeggiated improvisations. This broad musical palette has served Eubanks well throughout his TV career. Over the years, he and the Tonight Show Band have been called on to back such artists as k.d. lang, Solomon Burke, Willie Nelson, and others. They also supply fitting-and often tongue-in-cheek-intro and bumper music for the show's guests. For these musical bits and the songs they perform for the studio audience during commercial breaks, Eubanks draws on rock, funk, country, and jazz repertoire as well as film and TV theme songs.

Eubanks is clear that during his years growing up in Philadelphia, the prospect of becoming a television personality was not on his radar. But he believes it was almost inevitable that he would become a musician. His mother, Vera Eubanks, was a public-school music teacher and an accomplished pianist. Her brothers, pianist Ray Bryant and bassist Tommy Bryant, were well known in jazz circles and frequently brought musicians to the Eubanks home when gigs took them to Philly. Kevin's brothers Robin, Shane, and Duane, who also pursued music, were influential as well.

Despite his strong commitment to the Tonight Show, Eubanks has always managed to fit other projects into his schedule. He has written music for the TV movie Rebound and for the five-part PBS documentary Black Westerners, to name just two. On weekends, he appears frequently at jazz clubs and festivals around the country headlining a band that features his Tonight Show bandmates Marvin "Smitty" Smith '81 (drums), Gerry Etkins '76 (keyboards), and Stanley Sargeant (bass), as well as Berklee Woodwind Department Chair Bill Pierce (saxophone).

During his recent hiatus from the Tonight Show, Eubanks has been actively touring and preparing for a new album. He's also sharpening his chops and his wit for the reprise of his role at NBC when the Jay Leno Show debuts on September 14.

How did you get your start in music?

My mother was a music teacher, and she would bring different instruments home for me to try. Back then they had musical instruments in public schools. Finding out how instruments worked was a mystery to me. I started off playing violin and trumpet and probably should have been a piano player. My mother's side of the family was very into music, she taught piano and played classical and gospel music. My uncles Ray Bryant [pianist] and Tommy Bryant [bassist] were jazz musicians and played with Jo Jones, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, and others. I was around a lot of music, so I was bound to play some instrument.

Is it true that you chose guitar after attending a James Brown show?

Yeah, I saw his show at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia when I was about 12. I left there wanting to play guitar. I still don't understand the connection between seeing James Brown and wanting to play guitar; you'd think I would have wanted to sing or dance after that.

Were you self-taught on guitar?

Yes. I had taken violin lessons, so I wanted to teach myself guitar.

You have your own unique right-hand approach to guitar. Did you begin by playing with your right-hand fingers instead of a pick?

No, I played with a pick for about seven or eight years. But I'd seen some bluegrass players using a pick and fingers, and then I learned that Wes Montgomery only used his thumb. Hearing how well Wes played gave me the corroboration I needed to decide to stop using the pick altogether.

I don't understand why people would choose a pick over the fingers. It seems like trying to type a letter with one finger. You have all of your [right-hand] fingers and if you use a pick, it's like deciding to only use one. You also have less connection with the guitar. Your fingers aren't touching the string because there's a piece of plastic between them and the string. Maybe when there were only acoustic guitars, people used a pick to be heard. Now it seems like an oddity to me. I'm amazed when I see what people can do with a pick, but it seems so much harder to play that way. When you use the fingers, you have a lot more working for you.

You play all kinds of acoustic and electric guitars. Did a broad palette of musical styles appeal to you from the beginning?

All kinds of music-not just guitar music-appealed to me. I never divided things up between playing rhythm or lead guitar; it was all-inclusive, just part of what you needed to do. Playing melody, harmony, and rhythm is all part of playing guitar.

 

Can you mention some early musical influences?

I was influenced by all kinds of music. There are lots of musicians we can be influenced by, but it seems those closest around you are the biggest influences.

The people you're with every day influence you more than a record you hear or a video you see. Being around the music of my mother; my brother Robin, who plays trombone; and hearing my mother play gospel and classical music; and hearing my uncles Ray and Tommy playing jazz, affected me. The big, warm sound my brother Robin got from his trombone helped me develop an affinity for the low register. I love cellos, French horns, bass clarinets, and baritone guitars. I think it comes from hearing Robin play long tones on the trombone. It made me want to have a big, fat sound on guitar and play through bass amps. It seemed to me that the lower register in music was where all the action was going on, where the resolutions were. You see a plant sprout leaves, but the action is in the roots. The melody is above, but there is a lot of interest for me in the harmony below it.

The primary influences around me shaped my instincts more than those I heard on a record or studied with. As you develop a career, the people you play with and travel with affect the core of your understanding and expectations. Your environment influences you more than anything else.

Did you spend lots of time practicing as a kid?

I was kind of a loner when I was young. I was shy and didn't like going to parties or talking to girls. So it was natural for me to sit in a room for hours with a record to learn how Cannonball Adderley played something and then figure out how I could articulate it on guitar.

You started playing gigs while you were very young.

I was playing at bars when I was 13. I must have sounded terrible because I'd only started playing a year before. I remember my parents disagreeing on whether I should be playing in bars. My mom won. Because her family had so many musicians in it, she understood the life of a musician. My father was a detective and didn't understand. He couldn't get past the fact that I was young; it was against the law for me to be in bars. He was a disciplinarian. But my mother also showed great discipline in her own life learning to play Mendelssohn and Chopin. My father would say to me, "You weren't in there very long. Did you practice enough?" When I look at my job here at The Tonight Show, I could see the influence both of them had on me. For my dad's part, this job is very structured. For my mother's part, it's all about the music. I had a good foundation for maintaining a job like this.

It seems that you met some people at Berklee who were important to your future career.

I met so many people there: Branford Marsalis, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Tommy Campbell, Victor Bailey, Jeff Watts, and others. The most important thing we did there was play music and hang out.

After you left Berklee, which jazz musicians did you begin working with?

Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Sam Rivers, Slide Hampton, McCoy Tyner, Dave Holland. I worked with a lot of people.

How did you get the opportunity to record your own music?

My brother Robin was studying trombone with Slide Hampton and I was working with Slide, so we moved into a house he had in Brooklyn. Slide was one of the musicians who bought a house early on, and Wes Montgomery, Trane, Freddie Hubbard, and lots of others stayed at his home when they played in New York. When Slide was putting his trombone choir together, I played guitar with the group, and we did a showcase for a record deal with Bruce Lundvall. After that, Bruce called me about doing my own record. So my first record deal came as a result of my work with Slide.

Do you own the masters to your early recordings?

No, I might have to pursue that. I'd like to have the music I made for Blue Note and GRP. Some of those records were very satisfying. But if it's too much of a hassle, I'll just make new records and forget about those.

Now you have your own imprint, InSoul Music. How do you feel about making CDs as we move further into the digital age?

I'm as lost as anyone else is in this. We are musicians, so we are going to play and record. We have to figure out how to fit into the new technology. Meanwhile, we still have a passion to play. Many jazz musicians never made money from their records because the companies ripped them off by having them pay for the cost of making the records. But as musicians, we should have understood things better and not gone along with it. We should have stood up against that. Musicians lost sight of the bottom line.

Now the playing field is more level, in that you can record your own album and sell it from a website or the stage. If you haven't spent a lot of money to make the album, selling it out of the trunk of your car may be a profitable venture. The amount of money you spend determines how widely you need to distribute the album in order to make enough to keep recording more music.

Musicians are going to make music no matter whether there is a distribution network set up or whether they are making money. This is what keeps our spirits happy.

Becoming the Tonight Show bandleader seems like a fortuitous and unforeseen turn in your professional path.

I was living in New York playing with Dave Holland and my own groups, and then this came up. It wasn't in my mind at all.

 

You are such a natural for your role on the show. Aside from your musical abilities, you have a great comic side when trading lines with Jay Leno.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time at the schoolyard dreaming about dunking a basketball-I still dream about that! Being my height, which is short for basketball, I spent a lot of time sitting around watching the games waiting for a chance to play and getting teased a lot for being the shortest one. Kids can be cruel, but at the time, you develop a thick skin and find that everyone had something you could tease them about. So hanging out, busting on each other and trading one-liners became pretty natural. It was more of the same during the years I spent on the road with musicians and hanging out in airports. With Jay Leno, it's like having one of those quick conversations, but everybody is listening. Jay and I are really comfortable talking about anything, and things just come out.

You play the Tonight Show five nights a week, but you also book gigs around the country in your off time.

If I have weekends off, I'm going to book a gig and worry about being tired later. We have this summer off before Jay's new show starts in September, so I have gigs booked at the Blue Note in New York, Jazz Alley in Seattle, and dates in Pittsburgh.

For these gigs, will you draw from your entire catalog of original music?

We have plenty of material. I won't play the music from the early records. The oldest stuff will be from four years ago, and the new material will be just a few months old. All of it is new to people because we don't get out to play it that much. At the end of August, I want to record as much of the material as I can. Psychologically, it will be good to record this body of work so we can move on. My writing is evolving, and the new stuff is different.

Have any of your musical collaborations involved artists whom you've met through the Tonight Show?

Solomon Burke is someone we had a good time playing with, and we did some tracks in the studio together. But nothing has happened with that music yet. Through the years, I've made a lot of friendships with people who have played on the show.

"As you develop a career, the people you play with and travel with affect the core of your understanding and expectations. Your environment influences you more than anything else."  

Do you see yourself having a dual legacy as a TV personality and a jazz musician?

I think people will remember me more from TV than from the body of work I've created. There are some deep music fans that seek the other music out, but due to the enormity of TV as a medium, the music can't get that kind of exposure. People know me best for trading one-liners with Jay and doing what I do to help the show.

This isn't unusual. Many people think of George Benson just as a singer, but he is a great guitar player. Nat Cole was a great pianist, but he's also best known as a singer. The audience only knows what they are exposed to, and they compartmentalize things. That can be a little frustrating.

I think sometimes it requires too much from the observer to keep track of everything about you. Some people think that if I am on TV laughing at jokes, I can't be a serious musician. But here I am. It's possible to be on a late-night TV show and also be capable of playing with Art Blakey or whomever. It all can exist in one place.

Does working on TV enable you to attract audiences to your jazz gigs?

People want to see someone they've seen on TV in person. So they come out and hear us, and they like it. In a way, if they like you, they will tend to like what you do. They come with an open mind. This is a great opportunity to turn people on to something they might not otherwise find. It's shown me how open people can be.

  "If music gets back into the school systems, let's see what kids come up with. I want to be part of giving that opportunity back to the kids."

The way they are exposed to things helps them accept new ideas and gives me the opportunity to share what I do. Presentation is so important. When you present bluegrass music to someone who lives in the inner city, you are presenting something from a different environment and a different part of society. The music is almost inconsequential. If Snoop Dogg is playing in a bluegrass band, you might check it out because you like Snoop. We build walls that we feel safe behind. When someone you know is on the other side, then it feels OK to go to the other side of that wall.

I'd like to see people feeling that it's OK to listen to rap, hip-hop, or opera-it's just more music. As soon as someone gets popular and makes a million, then others lose their fear because they think they can make some money off it too. Traditionally, the arts communicate and break down barriers of fear between people on every continent. You can share art effortlessly and create interest-even among people who speak different languages. Nothing else does that.

What are your future goals?

I have two goals. The first is to tour with a great band for a couple of years playing on great stages where people can be exposed to the music. I've always wanted to do that. The second is to become involved in a national campaign to put music and instruments back into the public schools. I'm trying to join with organizations that have this goal but don't know how to get there.

I feel music should be available in public schools. By and large, the kids who want to become musicians will find a way to get their hands on an instrument. But this is not about creating more musicians. A music experience is helpful to anybody. It gives you a sense for working out problems. You learn to work together in a group, whether it is an orchestra or small group. You deal with emotions that you can only express in an artistic way. You spend time by yourself with an instrument and gain confidence about being alone without needing to be entertained by a television or something else.

When you take music or other arts out of the school you take a certain amount of humanity out too. So the kids are learning math and English, but the arts help students to become more emotionally literate. Students from other countries where the arts are still promoted in the schools learn faster and have other advantages. If kids have an instrument, they learn responsibility for taking care of it and making sure it plays right. Let's say their violin doesn't play, that will affect others in a group they play with and will hold the group back. Taking these experiences away deprives our children of another avenue of understanding.

With less music in the schools, you can feel that something's missing. Why are kids sampling music from decades ago? I think it's because some didn't have a chance to develop their own skills with instruments. They have computers that can sample, and so they bypassed having to make music for themselves. They sample very creatively, and that shows there is originality in their thinking. If they had the chance to have real music to deal with, they would do it. If music gets back into the school systems, let's see what kids come up with. I want to be part of giving that opportunity back to the kids.