Late Night- Live!

Behind the scenes with the "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" show bands.

Tuffus Zimbabwe
Keyboardist Tuffus Zimbabwe of the SNL band

The Art of Live TV

For late-night TV shows, a great band is essential. All the major network and cable shows in the genre have iconic bands that feature top-echelon musicians. High visibility and a nice paycheck are part and parcel of this work, making a place in such bands a coveted position. In late December, before the network shows went on holiday hiatus, Tuffus Zimbabwe ’05 and Mark Kelley ’03—who play with the Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon bands, respectively—pulled back the curtain to offer a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes in their work.

At an 11:00 A.M. call for the Saturday Night Live Band, Zimbabwe takes his seat behind the keyboard on the SNL set, with a mountain of charts to his left. Saxophonist and SNL band director Lenny Pickett apologizes to the members of his 11-piece outfit at the outset, telling them there will be no breaks in this rehearsal given the vast amount of material they need to cover for tonight’s broadcast.

“This is the Christmas show,” Zimbabwe says. “There’s always a lot of music in this one.” The band runs through Christmas tunes giving them a distinctive touch. “Jingle Bells” is a shuffle, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” has a funk groove, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” gets a Latin treatment. Pickett weaves his trademark hard-blowing tenor saxophone lines around the melodies as the band churns underneath. They pause only to mark adjustments to the charts and then move on. Most of these tunes will be played off the air for the studio audience during commercial breaks. But the audio feed will come up intermittently to the TV audience with midtune snippets serving as bumpers between ads and underscoring announcements about future SNL episodes.

Zimbabwe had already done two rehearsals for the comedy sketches on the Thursday and Friday before today’s rehearsal. “Friday was a long one,” he says. “I started at noon and didn’t leave here until 11:30 P.M.” He was working on accompaniments to skits with the SNL music director and others. Now it’s the day of the show, and the full band reviews all play-ons, play-offs, intros, and endings to prepare for the dress rehearsal that will start in a few hours.

Canadian actor Martin Short (this week’s host) and SNL cast member Fred Armisen appear alternately on the bandstand to settle questions about intros and tempos for their musical skits.

Even after discussions and rehearsals, things continue to mutate. “Sometimes things go one way in rehearsal,” Zimbabwe says. “Then later there will be changes and we have to adjust on the fly.” Zimbabwe is also expected to jump in if there is a slipup during a musical skit. “This show goes out live, mistakes and all,” he says. “We can’t go back and fix things. If something happens, it’s expected that I will steer the boat.”

He relates that on a past show, the chart called for the band to make a crisp entrance on a groove tune for a skit. But the actor came in singing the intro slowly and rubato, making it impossible for a graceful band entrance. “The piano is the hot seat,” Zimbabwe says. “That was a spontaneous moment. So I started out accompanying slowly and gradually brought the song up to tempo in the first A section. The horns and everyone else entered in the next section. To the audience, it sounded natural and in the end it turned out fine.”

Zimbabwe is a great fit for this job. He possesses sharp music-reading skills and broad musical sensibilities. Growing up in the Roxbury section of Boston, he took classical piano lessons as a kid and then participated in the Berklee City Music Program, and received mentoring from age 14 until he finished high school. He was awarded a full scholarship to Berklee where he studied film scoring and music business. In 2007, he moved to New York to play gigs with J4DA, a group of Berklee grads exploring a blend of jazz and hip-hop. He also enrolled in a graduate program at New York University. Just as Zimbabwe was finishing the program, his department chair recommended him to Lenny Pickett, an NYU faculty member who was seeking a pianist for the SNL band.

Mark Kelley
Members of the Roots ( from the left): Damon 'Tuba Gooding Jr.' Bryson, Mark Kelley, and Kerk 'Captain Kirk' Douglas
Lloyd Bishop/NBC

“Lenny called me in the summer of 2010,” Tuffus says, “and asked me if I wanted to audition. Of course I said yeah. We met in his office and talked a bit, it was relaxed. Then he dropped some of the charts from the show in front of me. He played an MP3 and listened as I played along. Then he and I played together. It was fun.”

Zimbabwe thought the audition had gone well, but then he didn’t hear anything for a few weeks. “I wasn’t sure I’d get a call back. But then Lenny called and invited me to come in, and he offered me the job. I was excited, but I contained myself while I was there. In my mind, I was shouting, ‘Yeah!’”

Zimbabwe was given about 100 charts and a bunch of MP3s so he could learn the repertoire. “I read through the charts and created an iTunes playlist with the MP3s. I listened to it day and night—I even went to sleep listening to it.”

The 2012 season was Zimbabwe’s third with the show, and he has grown  comfortable with his role. “Now I know what’s expected of me,” he says. After the December rehearsal, Pickett told me that they call Zimbabwe “The Ice Man.” “He’s so cool under pressure,” Pickett said with a grin.

Predictably, the SNL Christmas show went smoothly, and afterward the band and cast went on break until mid-January. In addition to working the show, Zimbabwe fits in other gigs. In October, he and two other SNL band members were tapped to play the Mark Twain Prize show at the Kennedy Center. Zimbabwe is also an accompanist for an opera company and plays gigs with vocal legend Darlene Love. Additionally, he teaches music lessons to middle-school children in Lower Manhattan and Queens. With a chuckle he confided, “I think teaching the kids might be the most difficult thing I do.”


Feeling Rooted

In the NBC building at Rockefeller Plaza three floors below the SNL set is the studio where the Jimmy Fallon Show is taped at 5:30 P.M. Monday through Friday each week. Fellow alumnus Mark Kelley plays bass in Fallon’s house band the Roots and arrives at 1:00 P.M. to prep for the December 14 show. He’s made time in his schedule to answer a few questions and show me around before the taping.

Often described as a hip-hop, neo-soul group, the Roots was formed by (drummer) Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and (rapper/MC) Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter in Philadelphia in 1987. They were well established with several albums and hit singles on their résumé by the time they were hired for the show in 2009. Kelley joined the band in August of 2011 after the previous bassist left. There was no audition; Kelley got the nod based on his solid reputation and a recommendation from a respected music promoter.

Hailing from Houston, Texas, Kelley spent a couple of years touring with guitarist John Scofield’s Überjam Band right after graduating from Berklee. In 2005, he relocated to New York to further his career.

“I saved the money I’d earned from the last Scofield tour, settled my debts, and moved down here,” Kelley says. “I took every gig I could in the hopes that something would come from somewhere.” He worked with Will Calhoun ’86 (drummer for Living Colour), Meshell Ndegeocello, Najee, Chris Botti, and others. He also got calls for one-off concerts with Mariah Carey and Queen Latifah, but it was a challenge to find steady work.

After a few years, Kelley and his wife (Chilean-born Latin-jazz vocalist Claudia Acuña) contemplated leaving New York. “We had a son and started thinking about moving back to Texas,” Kelley says. “We flew down to look at houses, and right after we checked into our hotel, I got a call from Jill Newman, a promoter I’d worked for in New York. She told me that Owen Biddle, the bass player for the Roots, was leaving and that she’d recommended me for the gig. I went right back to New York. The manager for the Roots called and asked me if I’d be interested in the gig. I said, ‘Yeah!’ He said he had to work some things out with the people at the Jimmy Fallon Show first. He called back on a Sunday night and said, “You’re on for Fallon tomorrow night.”

It was trial by fire, but Kelley clicked with the band. “Doing a TV show is very different from playing concerts—a different type of pressure,” he says. “At first I was very worried about messing up.” Now two years into it, Kelley is totally acclimated to the spontaneity.

“Sometimes Jimmy will just call something, and we have to play it on the spot,” Kelley says. “In his monologue, he may make reference to a song. Questlove has a mic that is heard only by the band in our in-ear monitors, and he can talk to us. He searches for the song on his computer and plays it for us in our monitors. We quickly figure out the key and the song’s chorus so that by the time Jimmy is ready for a commercial break, we’ll play the chorus as a bumper.

Late night - Live!
Late night - Live!
Lloyd Bishop/NBC

“Most of the music is not difficult and we rarely play anything that is longer than three minutes,” Kelley says. “We create these things called sandwiches, bumpers for commercials. We work them out at the beginning of each week. Questlove will start a drumbeat, and we jam a bit until we get something. That part is easy.”

The band also supplies music for comic sketches and accompanies musical artists who sit in with the band or who are the show’s featured performers. “Some of the musical guests bring their own bands, but others want to play with the Roots,” Kelley says. “That’s always an option. When an artist wants to play with the band, we’ll come in a few hours early for a rehearsal and camera blocking.”

In addition to doing the show weekdays, the band maintains its foundational identity. Their 13th album, Undun, was nominated for a 2012 Grammy in the Best Rap Album category. They keep an active schedule of concert appearances and have been known to catch a red-eye flight after the show’s Friday taping for a Saturday one-night appearance in Europe. They return Sunday night, ready to appear on Monday’s show.

“This band never stops,” Kelley says, “we are always working. Since I joined in 2011, I’ve only had two or three weeks off. I’ve never spent so much time with the same people as I do with the members of this band. We are like family.”

While his schedule is packed, Kelley still finds time for recording sessions and other gigs on weeknights. He’s currently writing music for a solo album but has no intention of going out on his own. “I don’t foresee Jimmy giving up his show anytime soon and the Roots are a big part of what goes on here,” he says. “This gig requires more creativity than other late-night TV band gigs. It’s ideal for me. I couldn’t have asked for a better gig.”