Berklee Today

TV Realities

Behind the Scenes with the Tonight Show Band

  Tonight Show Band
  The Tonight Show Band. (From the left): Vicki Randle, Marvin "Smitty" Smith '81, Matt Finders, Stanley Sargeant, Kevin Eubanks '79, Lee Thornburg, Ralph Moore '78, and Gerry Etkins '76
  By Mark Small

It's 2:00 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, and Kevin Eubanks '79 and the eight-piece Tonight Show Band are holed up in a rehearsal room in the basement of the NBC television studio complex in Burbank, California. In a few hours, together with Leno and the show's guests, Eubanks and company will play their part in the taping of the latest episode of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno before a live studio audience for later broadcast to millions of TV viewers.

The night's guests will include Lindsay Lohan, star of the Disney film Herbie: Fully Loaded; Jeremy Piven, who plays Ari in the HBO series Entourage; and comedian Mo Rocca. The musical guest is the Backstreet Boys, who will perform on a soundstage outside the studio. Like a number of Leno's musical guests these days, the Backstreet Boys is a self-contained unit, so Eubanks and his crew won't play with them.

In the rehearsal, the Tonight Show Band is focused on learning the song "First" to play before Lohan walks out onstage as well as the theme song for Entourage for Piven's walk-on. Rehearsing as many other groups do, the players are working from a basic chord chart and the CD of Lohan's tune. Saxophonist Ralph Moore '78 and the horn section have already sketched out their parts: Eubanks, keyboardist Gerry Etkins '76, drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith '81, and bassist Stanley Sargeant have worked out the groove; and vocalist Vicki Randle has Lohan's vocal part down. Eubanks starts and stops the CD, pointing out some of the song's subtleties that he wants to include in their rendition. Soon, they move on to the rest of the show's material, which will include Rob Thomas's "This Is How a Heart Breaks" and Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun." Tonight's show will require five short bumpers and/or walk-ons in addition to songs the band will play in their entirety for the studio audience during commercial breaks.

After rehearsal ends and before the show begins, I chat with Eubanks and the other Berklee guys in the group: Etkins, Smith, and Moore. Having played together since 1995, the band knows plenty of material, so the members rehearse only as needed. "If I just want to learn a couple of new songs like we did today," says Eubanks, "we might get together for a little while to run through them. We learned Lindsay Lohan's song because she is on the show, and that Rob Thomas song was played throughout the basketball playoffs. We try to keep something current and other songs that might be in the back of people's minds. For example, we were playing 'Beat It' during the Michael Jackson trial a while ago. Jay was doing Michael Jackson jokes almost every night back then."

For shows when the band is slated to back up another artist, everyone arrives early to learn that performer's music and then do sound and camera checks with the artist. Some days the band comes in to rehearse a comedy bit that has musical backing or to do prerecords for a pretaped segment. This is a live TV show and, there are no edits or second takes. But, Etkins remembers being asked to add music in a spot after the show was taped. "One time there was a guest who just started singing a song a cappella," Etkins recalled. "It was decided later that there should be music under him. I had to figure out an artful way to accompany him when he wasn't staying in any particular key or tempo."

Kevin Eubanks  
Kevin Eubanks has led the Tonight Show Band since 1995.  
By Chris Haston  

Following the Leader
The band has learned always to be prepared for the unexpected. The musicians follow signals from Eubanks to hit a chordal jab that punctuates a joke or they may follow Eubanks as he plays a lick from a well-known song that relates to what has been said or done onstage. "We might have to cut a song off early when I get a sign from the stage manager," says Eubanks. "Sometimes if a guest isn't ready to come out, we may have to stretch the song a little bit. We might go back to the chorus or a solo or even break it down to the drums." Etkins adds, "Kevin is really good at coming up with these ideas on the spot." It goes without saying that the band is also good at following him.

Three members of the band, Eubanks, Randle, and trombonist Matt Finders, have worked on the show since Branford Marsalis came aboard as the leader in 1992. When Eubanks picked up the baton in 1995, he called Etkins, Smith, and Moore and asked if they would leave their jazz gigs in New York to work in Los Angeles.

"There were no auditions," says Smith. "Kevin just asked us to come out here for the gig. We were very New York-oriented at the time, so moving out here was a big change. I came out two days after Kevin called. We had all played in L.A. before, but moving out here was something I had some trepidation about. But now that I'm here, I've been able to thrive."

Smith arrived two days after Eubanks called, and Etkins and Moore soon followed. While there have been a few different bass players and trumpeters over the years (the current lineup includes bassist Stanley Sargeant and trumpeter Lee Thornburg), otherwise the band personnel hasn't changed since Eubanks became the leader.

The Tonight Show is unlike other TV shows that have a fall to spring season and then go into reruns. The show airs every weeknight other than a few weeks a year, so the job is very steady. "When we first started, there were only four weeks off each year," says Etkins. "Now there are six."

Due to the nature of the job and the rapport necessary among musicians, it's not a gig where the players can ask a sub to cover if they want a night off. "I have been here every night for over 10 years," says Smith. "There have been some emergencies-like when Matt, the trombone player, broke his collarbone and was out for two weeks-but by and large, everyone is always here."

In addition to the camaraderie built up from playing together for so long and the dues several band members paid together 10 years ago in New York, other factors make this a tight-knit group of musicians. Etkins and Smith tell me they often get together to play and write new material. A jazz musician at the core, Ralph Moore also seeks additional playing opportunities with members of the Tonight Show Band. "I'm always interested in playing with the guys in this group," Moore says. "There's not much music going on in Los Angeles that really interests me. I play some gigs with jazz musicians who come to Los Angeles and give me a call. Otherwise, I might put something together with Smitty to play local gigs."

A few members of the band, including Eubanks, expressed that while millions of people enjoy watching the band on the show, some members of the jazz community initially looked down on them for working on a television show. "When we first started doing this, some jazz players were making us feel like we'd sold out by taking this type of gig," says Smith. "But there is no shame in being here. Collectively, we'd played with Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Tommy Flanagan, and others. We got to apprentice in bands with great jazz artists and got to be a part of their scene. We brought all of the sensibilities we had back in New York here. Those things didn't leave us."

Playing for a live taping of a show presents its own unique musical challenges. Etkins recalls having to learn a different musical approach. "One thing that this gig has taught me is about building a tune," says Etkins. "During a live set in another setting, it's very different because you can take your time. On this show, there are time limitations, and we have to get to the point right away. It requires a different way of playing; you don't have the luxury of warming up in a long solo section. At first it felt somewhat unmusical, but after a while we learned how to do it in a musical way."

  Tonight Show Band in rehearsal
  From the left: Ralph Moore, Gerry Etkins, Kevin Eubanks, and Marvin "Smitty" Smith after a preshow rehearsal.
  By Mark Small

Keeping the Candle Burning
It's now 4:00 p.m. and there's about a half-hour left before showtime. I follow Eubanks into his office as he describes how he constantly strives to bring fresh energy to the job. He tells me that one of Leno's favorite lines at the end of a show is, "Great, we get to do this again tomorrow!" "But tomorrow you have to be as fresh as you were today," Eubanks says. "A comedian I was speaking with backstage told me what it's like to tell the same joke in 20 different cities with the same energy you told it with the first time. You want the people to feel they are hearing fresh material. So I try to create new energy no matter what music we are playing."

To keep his creative juices flowing, Eubanks frequently plays weekends elsewhere with his quartet. "I play all around the country with [bassist] Carlos Del Puerto, Smitty on drums, and Bill Pierce [Berklee's Woodwind Department chair] playing saxophone," says Eubanks. "Smitty and I take red-eye flights after the show on Friday nights. If I stop writing or getting together with players, there's a candle in me that gets dim and affects everything else. I might not have that spark in my eye when Jay turns and says, 'Hey, Kev . . .' and then goes into a joke. This is what keeps me going and generates the energy for everything else."

Both Eubanks and Etkins cite the opportunities to play with big-name artists is a major perk of working on the show . "We've gotten to be around so many different artists," says Eubanks. "You get to see how valuable each musical idiom is, whether it's Alison Kraus or Willie Nelson or someone completely different. We've gotten to play with them or go to their shows and hang out with them afterwards." Etkins says that Al Green and Bonnie Raitt request the band to back them whenever they are on the show. Other favorites they've accompanied include Isaac Hayes, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), kd lang, and many others.

A knock on the door indicates that it's time for Eubanks to change and get up to the set. Inside the studio, the crowd is excited after being warmed up by both Leno and comedian Bob Perlow. Leno, clad in a denim shirt and jeans, excuses himself from the stage saying, "I have to go change into one of my dorky suits now." He returns suited up minutes later to the sounds of thunderous applause and an energetic groove provided by the band with Eubanks's fleet-fingered guitar lines soaring above it all.

The band punctuates jokes during the monologue, and Leno banters a bit with Eubanks. After a commercial break, during which Leno stays onstage and the band plays the Sheryl Crow tune they ran through earlier, it's time for the first guest. Comedian Mo Rocca comes out to air a video segment of his wacky man-on-the-street-type interviews with revelers at the annual Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois. The band brings him on with a few bars from the Superman movie theme.

The next guest is Lindsay Lohan. I can see her awaiting her cue in the wings, rubbing her hands together as she works out the butterflies. The band brings her out to the chorus of her song "First." She's smiling broadly. Once seated on the couch, she looks toward the band and tells Leno with childlike glee, "They just played my song!"

The reality of a live broadcast with no stops is in evidence a few minutes later. The band plays the theme from the show Entourage as actor Jeremy Piven crosses the stage. As he goes to hug Lohan, he knocks a glass of water over on Leno's desk, soaking a pile of papers and Leno. The cameras keep rolling, no director yells, "Cut!" Rather, the stage crew just start tossing towels from offstage up to Leno. He mops up the desk, ribs Piven for his exuberant flailing as he approached Lohan, and the show goes on.

This particular episode runs less than the usual 60 minutes for the band. During the final commercial break, the audience is invited to go outside with Leno to a stage where the Backstreet Boys are ready to perform. Eubanks and his band remain inside chatting and putting away charts and instruments.

Etkins, Smith, Moore, and I stick around a little longer in the green room backstage before saying goodbye. The night is young, and they all have places to go. It's not even 6:00 p.m. yet when I drive past the guard shack and up West Alameda Avenue toward the 134 Freeway. Etkins's parting comment sticks with me. "We feel very blessed;" he says. "We're here by pure chance. To be working on a show like this is amazing because there just aren't many gigs like this." True enough, I think as strains of a Gershwin tune come to mind. "Nice work if you can get it/And you can get it if you try."