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(Soundbite of "The Tonight Show")

Unidentified Announcer: It's "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, featuring Kevin Eubanks and "The Tonight Show" band...

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Kevin Eubanks is best-known as the band leader on Jay Leno's nightly NBC show, but he's been playing jazz guitar since he was a teen-ager. Among many honors, Eubanks was invited to host this weekend's Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles. He told Ed Gordon that the festival is just the latest achievement in his rich musical career.

Mr. KEVIN EUBANKS (Jazz Guitarist): I was touring for over 15 years before I came to "The Tonight Show" with people like Art Blakey and Roy Haynes, McCoy Tyner. I really come from that whole move to New York with a few bucks and take some gigs, serving tables or whatever, and work your way into the clubs, and, you know, try to get better as a musician and see what happens.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

ED GORDON, host:

How much--when you got the call to be a part of "The Tonight Show" did you have to think about it, or was it a no-brainer?

Mr. EUBANKS: I had to think about it for a while, and I actually had to be convinced to take it. I was really doing a lot of things that I had aspired to do, and I was learning a lot, playing with a lot of great musicians. And I was starting to record my own records a lot, and it's kind of what I knew. But I was getting a little bit tired of traveling so much just because you had to say goodbye to everybody you met all over the world. There's a sense of not belonging anywhere. Actually, a friend of mine named Duke Bubois, who unfortunately passed away a few years ago--he was a radio PR person at GRP Records, said that if I didn't take the job, that he would just slap me upside the head. Duke was a pretty big guy, and I just said, `Well, I guess I better go that way then.'

GORDON: Better do that for safety's sake, if nothing else, right?

Mr. EUBANKS: Duke was a sweet guy, though.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

GORDON: Now you came from a musical family, but I also understand that your parents protested the fact that you said, `Hey, I want to be a guitarist as a profession.'

Mr. EUBANKS: Yeah, that's true. My mother's side of the family--completely musical from--my uncle was Ray Bryant, a really famous jazz piano player, and my mother had a--she would always teach piano. She was the one there that had a piano, so Ray would come over with a bunch of people all the time and rehearse. And I had this idea that I wanted to play violin and they said, `You know, you're not going to stick to violin.' And I said, `Oh, no, I want to play violin.' And so I took violin lessons for about five or six years, and, then, like they said, I quit. And that's when I wanted to play guitar, and that's when they said, `Oh, no.'

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Mr. EUBANKS: But that's a funny story around Christmastime these days.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

GORDON: When you think about the people that you've worked with--Ron Carter, Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, I mean giants of the business--and then you think about the fame that has come to you, so many of these people, outside of jazz aficionados, have played in relative obscurity. How much do you appreciate that this show has given you a tremendous amount of fame?

Mr. EUBANKS: If it's all for the right reasons and it keeps people open-minded about things, it's a good thing. Because a lot of times I run into things like, you know, `What kind of music are you playing on the show?' And `Jazz needs you.' And all these kind of things. I'm seen as a jazz musician, and I play Avril Lavigne songs on "The Tonight Show." And I've learned from being at "The Tonight Show" and actually meeting a lot of the musicians and playing with them, that they feel for their music what I feel for my music, too. As long as you can play it honestly, with respect, it's beautiful music.

(Soundbite of music with guitar featured)

GORDON: One of the things that I know you're going to have some fun with this summer is, June 11th and 12th, you're going to be master of ceremonies for the--what is the 27th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. And that's going to allow you to stress your wares a bit, I would think, in some fantastic company there.

Mr. EUBANKS: Oh, yeah, it's always a great time out there, and the music is non-stop.

GORDON: Just some of the names that will be there this year: George Benson, Boney James, Ramsey Lewis, Dr. John and many, many others. And you get to pull it all together.

Mr. EUBANKS: Yeah. And that's fun because I'm on stage the whole time. When you play festivals, as a musician, usually you play your show and then you're back in the bus or back at the hotel or you're--the next day you're in the airport going to your next concert. But when I host a festival I get to see every band, and I get to feel how the audience goes through every group, too. And I never knew how wonderful jazz festivals really were, because I never stuck around for the whole festival. So the Playboy festival, I stay around for the whole thing and it's almost like the wonder of music hits you again.

GORDON: You are taking over for--from a man we all know and who is an avid lover of jazz and an aficionado. Bill Cosby typically is the master of ceremonies of this grand event.

Mr. EUBANKS: Absolutely, Philly's own, Bill Cosby. So that's quite an honor, too, you know. It makes me feel really warm inside that it's--still has the spirit of Bill Cosby around and I'm just trying to do him proud and keep things moving.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

GORDON: Well, indeed, we thank you for your time, man. Good to talk to you.

Mr. EUBANKS: Thanks a lot. Thanks a lot, man. Appreciate it.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

CHIDEYA: You can hear more of Kevin's music on our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

CHIDEYA: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to this show, visit npr.org. Or, if you'd like to comment, call us at (202) 408-3330. That's (202) 408-3330. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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