Guitarist Kevin Eubanks

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Guitarist explains why he left his gig as Tonight Show bandleader and talks about what’s next for his career.

Before Kevin Eubanks became a familiar name as The Tonight Show bandleader, he was already well-established as a jazz guitarist. He's appeared on more than 100 albums and has his own boutique label, InSoul. The Philadelphia native was a teen prodigy, born into a musical family and, by age 13, played in local jazz clubs. He attended Berklee College of Music and toured Europe with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Eubanks was recently named artistic director of the Jazz in the Classroom program, in conjunction with the L.A. Unified School District.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Kevin Eubanks to this program. The talented jazz artist was, of course, with Jay Leno for 18 years and just – (laughter) he said, “Ugh -” and just recently stepped down from his role on “The Tonight Show.”
Among his new projects, a terrific program aimed at high school kids called Jazz in the Classroom – more on that in a moment. But first, here now from the final “Tonight Show” episode with Kevin Eubanks, performing an original song, in fact, called, “Adoration.”
Tavis: I was so impressed you got through that whole thing without crying.
Kevin Eubanks: Oh, man, I was crying inside, Tavis. (Laughter)
Tavis: You’re such a tough guy from south Philly. (Laughter) West Philly. What part of Philly?
Eubanks: North Philly, actually.
Tavis: North Philly. (Laughter)
Eubanks: Yeah, yeah, north Philly.
Tavis: They must be proud of you back home in Philly.
Eubanks: Well, I hope so, man. A lot of musical beginnings came from Philly and all that stuff, so we used to just play music all the time. Every neighborhood in Philly had a band and you would kind of know what neighborhood you were in by the band.
It was Black Gold or Sundown, Pitch Black, whatever. (Laughter) We had all our names and everybody wanted to play with Frankie Beverly because back then, Frankie Beverly had it going on.
Tavis: From Philly.
Eubanks: Yeah.
Tavis: Yeah.
Eubanks: So everybody said, “Man, I might be playing with Frankie Beverly.” But that was great because that’s all we did as kids, was play music and try and save our money from playing proms and weddings and dances and things like that, and run to the store and buy new equipment. But it was really fun.
Tavis: Speaking of growing up in Philly, you are blessed because both of your parents are still living.
Eubanks: Yes.
Tavis: I know this because I saw pictures of you and your parents at the recent White House correspondence dinner.
Eubanks: Oh, yeah, that’s right, yeah.
Tavis: When Jay did the stand-up thing.
Eubanks: Yeah, right.
Tavis: So your parents must have really enjoyed being able to turn on the TV every night and see their baby on television.
Eubanks: That’s true. (Laughter) My mother calls me now, “Are you okay?” I’m like, “Mom, I’m okay. I’m not on the air right now, but Mom, I’m just fine.” And she’s like, “I just wanted to make sure.”
Tavis: We laugh about that, but what’s funny about that is that when you’re on TV every night, I don’t know about White folk but for Black folk, my mama watches every night because she wants to know how I look, how I’m feeling, if I’m looking stressed.
Eubanks: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: If I need a haircut.
Eubanks: She does, she does.
Tavis: Or if she doesn’t like my haircut. But every night she tunes in because that’s her way, 3,000 miles away in Indiana, to know that Tavis is okay.
Eubanks: That’s true.
Tavis: So your parents must be the same.
Eubanks: Oh, yeah, my mother will call and be – it must be like 4:00 in the morning her time and she’ll call and say, “Oh, I went to bed but you had a funny look in your face. I just wanted to call and make sure everything was okay.”
I said, “Ma, it’s all right, it’s cool.” She said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Ma, go back to sleep.” “I can’t sleep unless I know you’re all right.” I said, “Mom, I’m okay, go back to sleep.”
Tavis: Are you sure your mama’s name ain’t Joyce? (Laughter)
Eubanks: Is that what your mom does?
Tavis: Sounds just like Joyce to me.
Eubanks: Yeah. Well that’s good stuff, though, so now I just say, “Ma, everything’s really good.”
Tavis: So how’s your mama going to check in on you now when you’re not on “Jay Leno” anymore?
Eubanks: I know, I have to call in more. I have to call at night and send her, like, reruns of the show. (Laughter) Say, “Ma, check it out.”
Tavis: So the obvious question is why leave after 18 years?
Eubanks: Well, you get things pressing inside of you to want to do other things and travel around again and play some music, and I just want to expand more and get into some other things.
I used to travel quite a bit and I want to get back into traveling, because a lot of Americans, we don’t travel enough.
Tavis: Most Americans don’t even have passports.
Eubanks: You know? And then you go someplace and then you see what’s happening or you meet friends from there and it’s different from what you just hear on the news and things like that.
So I used to travel to the Middle East, Kuwait and Pakistan and Jordan, South Africa, Japan, South America, all over Europe and Scandinavia and all that, and I haven’t traveled anywhere, really, in about 18 years except my dad and I, we went to South Africa for a trip because he always wanted to go and I had two weeks off, which was a goldmine in this business, in the late night TV business, anyway, and we went there.
We got there and you have these ideas about what you think it’s going to be, and when I got there, there were so many cell phones and computers, it’s worse than L.A. I was like, I can’t even concentrate because there’s so much – and that’s the last thing I expected.
It just goes to show you that you just don’t know until you’re there. Our favorite time was just being in the bush. We went back to that. The city stuff was –
Tavis: Away from it all, right? (Laughter)
Eubanks: (Unintelligible) “Can we get the guide? Where’s Craig at? Let’s go back in the bush,” and we loved it there.
Tavis: I suspect, listening to you talk now, that as rewarding as it was to be the band leader on “The Tonight Show,” number one for almost all those years with Jay, as rewarding as that was and for all the folk who know you now and recognize you, move around and follow the opportunities now that will come now as a result of that, it had to be limiting, though.
When you’re on five nights a week, and Jay is one of those guys, as we all know, who don’t believe in taking vacations. Jay would work on Saturday and Sunday if they let him. (Laughter)
Eubanks: Yeah, Jay would say, “Where you working this weekend?” And a lot of weekends, I would be working. On the weekends where I wasn’t working he’d say, “Where you gigging at this weekend?” I’d say, “I’m not gigging anywhere, Jay.” He’s like, “Oh.” (Laughter) It’s like, “What did I do, man?”
It’s only limiting if you have a conflict of interests with what it is that you’re doing. I know what the job was, I knew what I was trying to do, how to contribute to the show and things like that, so I never had a conflict of interest. So in that sense you don’t really feel limited because your objective is to contribute to the show and make the show better, and if you do that, you’re doing your job.
If you want to tour, if you want to work with high school students, if you want to do other things, then you have to either fit that in with that or you have to stop and do something else. So that’s what it really comes down to.
Tavis: When all that late night drama was going on – I know you’re probably thinking which part, because there’s always late night drama going on – but the most recent thing, Jay leaves late night, goes to prime time, gets dogged by everybody, goes back to late night. Then the Conan thing jumps off, Jay’s getting dogged again.
We know this obviously had an impact on Jay, he’s human. He played it off well, but I know that as a human being that had to impact him, what was being said about him and et cetera, et cetera, sitting down with Oprah and trying to explain it and all this.
How does that impact the people around him – people like Kevin Eubanks, who are going through that with him?
Eubanks: Well, the first thing you want to do is – the first thing we did was we stayed focused on the work we were doing, because when you’re working five days a week, Whether you’re doing an 11:30 show or a 10:00 show, my commute is the same. I go to work at the same time, I get stuck in traffic at the same time, I listen to NPR.
Tavis: But do you drive a different car every day like Jay does?
Eubanks: No, no, I don’t, I don’t. I’m not really a big car guy. So part of it just stays the same. But when you get to the set and things just aren’t quite right in places they were, people are walking around a little bit stiffer, a little bit this and that because you feel this tension on top of you because no matter what you do now, you can be the number one show and you can be fired and then you can come back at a 10:00 show and have all these doubts racing around.
Whether this is an experiment, what are they doing with this? It impacts people’s lives. They don’t know if they have a job or if they don’t have a job, things like that. You have nothing – what your opinion is about it is meaningless, because this is just something that somebody says. “Let’s do this, let’s do that,” and you just go in and do the best job you can.
Tavis: Some suits in New York City.
Coleman: Right. So you do a great job, you’re the number one show. The next day you’re in an experiment at 10:00. Then they say, “Oh, by the way, this is over and you’re going back to the -” so it’s a little nerve-wracking because you kind of feel like you’re not appreciated for the job that you do in that you just get swept around from here to there, but that’s kind of the nature of the entertainment business anyway.
So you’ve got to let a lot of things roll off your back and try and stay focused on the job you’re doing. That’s the best you can do.
Tavis: So for you now that’s all prologue.
Eubanks: Yes, yes.
Tavis: So now the ultimate question is what now.
Eubanks: Well, now I continue being a musician and I get to practice again and frustrate myself from trying to solve new musical problems, and get together and play with people and I’m trying to keep everything in a progressive way musically because there’s so many things that I want to do.
I’m going to be releasing a CD in the fall, a new music project in the fall that I’m looking forward to, getting behind that and touring. Also I’ve been fortunate enough to work with these high school students in the past few months.
Tavis: I want to hear about this, yeah.
Eubanks: It has just been amazing to see what’s going on in the various different schools all over Los Angeles. Some schools you’ve got to go through a gate to get there with barbed wire, and other schools are on college campuses and everything’s just lovely.
The thing that stays the same is that the talent and the curiosity of the students is the same either way.
Tavis: But in those schools with the gates, they don’t even teach music anymore.
Eubanks: Well, they’re doing what they can and they do teach. They have ensembles and they do what they can and all that, and the teachers are very enthusiastic about doing it.
The materials and the funding is what’s being pulled away, so they’re trying to teach in an environment where they don’t have the facilities or the materials to do the things that they want to do. But if you have motivated people in anything – students, in government, in whatever – if you have motivated people and they see a ray of opportunity, then they’re going to try and get to it.
So to see that everywhere that I went made me feel good. I’m there for them and when I come out of there I feel better. I go, “Wow, there is hope.” There is things coming up, and it’s just, I think, human nature to want to create and progress and be better and I see that when I visit these schools and it makes me want to keep doing it and keep doing it because it’s very rewarding work.
My mother was a schoolteacher for 35 years in the public schools in Philadelphia, so I guess some of that kind of rubbed off on me.
Tavis: Well, he’s going to keep on doing it. Did it with Jay Leno for 18 years as the band leader on “The Tonight Show” and now he’s going to do a bunch of other stuff, including CDs and touring and working with high school students and picking up that – yes?
Eubanks: Okay, one more thing I forgot, real quick.
Tavis: Sure, what’d you forget?
Eubanks: I am developing a cooking show and – why you look like that, man? Has anybody seen that expression on his face before? (Laughter) You haven’t seen that in a long time, right?
Tavis: You cook?
Eubanks: What do you mean? I’m a musician, of course I cook, man.
Tavis: Wait, wait, wait, wait – you said that like every musician cooks.
Eubanks: Let me tell you, let me tell you, if you move to New York with $2 in your pocket, you’re cooking. You’re not going anywhere. (Laughter) You learn how.
Tavis: Well, I had $2 in my pocket and I can’t play nothing, but I wasn’t cooking.
Eubanks: You have to learn that. Well, I always liked to cook because when I was a kid my mom – at 13 years old we were always having rehearsals. We had bands at that age. My mother said, “You know what? That’s it. You either learn – you have to cook yourself, because I’m not going to keep the food out, I’m not going to do that. Here’s the stuff over here. You learn how to cook.” So of course, I’ve been cooking a long time.
Tavis: So you’re (unintelligible) Food Network or something?
Eubanks: I’m going to try and do something, man. It’s going to be a nice show, man.
Tavis: So it’s like music and food all in the same kind of –
Eubanks: Music and food and a guest interview section.
Tavis: Oh, cool, cool.
Eubanks: Yeah, so I’m trying to put all that together, trying to get a pilot together right now.
Tavis: See, that’s too much talent. You’re going to cook your food, (laughter) serve the food, and then jump around, come to the table and play for the people.
Eubanks: And play. (Laughter) And I’m going to switch clothes by the time I get from here to there.
Tavis: Well, you know what? If anybody can do it, he’s awfully talented – I’m sure Kevin Eubanks can. Why don’t you go ahead and play me out with something here for 30 seconds after I tell you that’s our show for tonight. You can catch me on the weekends on PRI, Public Radio International, and Kevin Eubanks everywhere now that he ain’t locked into that seat every night on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Thanks for watching and keep the faith. Take us home, Kevin Eubanks.
[Live performance]
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm