Kevin Eubanks Reflects On 15 Years Leading Leno Kevin Eubanks has ended his 15-year run as band leader of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Eubanks pulls back the curtain on a day in the life of the musical director of a late night talk show, and explains his role as sidekick to host Jay Leno.

Kevin Eubanks Reflects On 15 Years Leading Leno

Kevin Eubanks Reflects On 15 Years Leading Leno

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Kevin Eubanks and The Tonight Show band perform on May 28, 2010. Paul Drinkwater/NBC hide caption

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Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Kevin Eubanks has ended his 15 year run as band leader of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Eubanks got his start on the show playing guitar in the Tonight Show band under leader Branford Marsalis. Three years into the gig, he got the nod from Jay Leno to lead the band when Marsalis left.

Now, Eubanks has decided to move on. He played his last show as Leno's musical director and sidekick on May 28.

Eubanks tells NPR's Neal Conan that the role of band leader was the easiest part of his job on The Tonight Show.

"The difficult part is understanding the particular show you're on, and how you can best contribute to that situation," he says.

Eubanks says he encountered all kinds of challenges in setting the right tone for the day's program: "Anything from learning what songs will work best with an audience that's on spring break, to answering your former colleagues, 'Why aren't you playing straight-ahead jazz music on this show,' to 'Kevin, could you please speak with Diana Ross, she's not coming out of her dressing room.'"

Eubanks didn't know Ross, but for some reason she would only speak with him.

He says, "I knocked on her door, and I just said, 'Ms. Ross, I'm just a fan from since when I was a kid, they sent me in here, I don't know why, but I just want your autograph, and then I'll leave you alone.'"

His humble approach worked, and Ross came out and did the show.

Next, Eubanks will be assuming the role of artistic director for the Jazz in the Classroom program at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. He's looking forward to going into high schools and encouraging musically gifted students.


After he got the big promotion, the fresh-faced guitar player swore his allegiance to host Jay Leno, as the new leader of The Tonight Show Band.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno")

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"): Do you, Kevin Eubanks, solemnly swear to hold the fine tradition of The Tonight Show Band?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEVIN EUBANKS (Former Musical Director, The Tonight Show Band): Absolutely.

Mr. LENO: Okay. Do you swear to be 25 minutes late for every rehearsal?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: I'll try, I'll try.

Mr. LENO: Do you swear to fidget and make noise during a monologue like they normally do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: I'll try.

Mr. LENO: And do you swear to continue to play songs that no one but the band has ever heard of?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: Okay.

Mr. LENO: By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you leader of The Tonight Show Band. Ladies and gentlemen, Kevin Eubanks.

CONAN: Kevin Eubanks spent the next 15 years as Leno's musical director and sidekick, a run that ended last Friday. Kevin Eubanks now plans to tour and record and teach. Over the course of his career, he's appeared on countless recordings with the likes of Art Blakey, Dave Holland and the Oliver Lake Quintet. He has six solo albums on his own label, In Soul. And last month, Eubanks took on a new role as artistic director for the Jazz in the Classroom program of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.

If you'd like to talk with Kevin Eubanks about life as a band leader on a late-night talk show, about his music and where he goes from here, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kevin Eubanks joins us from our bureau in New York. And it's nice to have you with us today.

Mr. EUBANKS: Hi. Really nice to be here. I'm a big fan of NPR, by the way.

CONAN: Oh, well, that's very nice. And we meant to mention, it would get a little crowded here in Studio 3A. Probably be just you, but if you're looking for a gig, we could use a band.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, not quite just yet, but, you know, I might come knocking.

CONAN: Okay. Well, you've got our phone number, so you're welcome any time. It must be something of a relief, at the same time, you may not know what to do with yourself after all this time.

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, that's true. I mean, after I'm doing it - that for so long and you, you know, develop a routine from doing it and all that. And then you wake up and you go, like, what do I do, you know? And so that's starting to creep up on me too, so - but it's all for a, you know, all the right and good reasons, so I'm looking forward to it.

CONAN: Can you give us some insight on what a musical director for a late-night talk show does? You're the bandleader, but it must involve more than that.

Mr. EUBANKS: Oh, yeah. The bandleader, that part is somewhat the easiest part because I've been doing that for years and every, you know, all the musicians in the band, we've all been playing our instruments and playing in bands all our careers. So that part is the easy part. The difficult part is understanding the particular show you're on and how you can best contribute to that situation - which, in this case, will be anything from learning what songs will work best with an audience that's on spring break, to answering your former colleagues, why aren't you playing straight-ahead jazz music on the show, to, oh, Kevin, could you just please speak with Diana Ross? She's not coming out of her dressing room and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: ...none of us know her. And so I had to pretend like I knew her. I never knew her either. And so she just wasn't coming out. So the executive producer said, Kevin, can you talk her? I was, like, I never met her before. Well, she won't speak to anybody else, so maybe you can. So I knocked on the door and I just said, Ms. Ross, I'm just a fan from since I was a kid. They sent me in here. I don't know why, but I just want your autograph, and then I'll leave you alone. And after that, she came out. And so I act like I went in there and said, oh, well, you know, I had to, you know, but really, I just wanted your autograph. And that was it. And maybe she, you know, for whatever reason, she just came out after that.

So you have a lot of different roles. And, of course, being able to be of some use during the monologue segment of the show. And so you have to kind of juggle all of these hats and at the same time keep a musical presence and a type of credibility, you know, throughout all of these things that actually have nothing whatever to do with music. So it's kind of a weird situation that you kind of grow into. I don't think you hit the ground running so much as you try and learn as quickly as you can before somebody mentions the word ratings and your name...

CONAN: Comes up. Yeah.

Mr. EUBANKS: the same sentence when it's going down. You'll never hear it when it's going up, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I think not. You got a real good cue this week, yes.

Mr. EUBANKS: Yeah, right.

CONAN: There are occasions, I'm sure maybe just one or two over the course of 15 years where the joke wasn't really that funny. But are you - is it in your contract, must laugh?

Mr. EUBANKS: No, that's in the part of the contract that you can't read...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: ...but it's in there if you hold it up to the light. It's the perfect type of light. You'll see it there, you know: you must laugh. But no, you want to keep everything flowing and all that. And, you know, I must say, after a certain amount of time of being there and adjusting to the environment and being creative about it, you find things to laugh about even when, you know, maybe the joke doesn't have the desired effect.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. EUBANKS: You find things to laugh about. You know, why it didn't work or you tease him, you know, I knew that joke wasn't going to work, Jay, or something like that. Or you go back to it, you know? Don't you wish you could take that joke back now? I mean, so you kind of can create, you know...

CONAN: You can work with it.

Mr. EUBANKS: Yeah, you can do something with it.

CONAN: All right. I have to ask you: Branford Marsalis was the original - Leno's original bandleader, "The Tonight Show" bandleader. You were in the band at that time. He decided to leave for various reasons and you were promoted out of the band and the band stayed the same. Now for 15 years after that, you're leaving and I think so is everybody else.

Mr. EUBANKS: Yeah, that's a curious thing. I just took a different approach. I just thought that the people there kind of had a feel for the place and that that experience was valuable. And I thought that maybe that would make everybody feel a little bit more secure. I felt a little bit more secure and there were other musicians that I knew of course that would have appreciated the job. But I just thought there are a very few, you know, musicians that had that kind of experience, particularly ones that were on the show.

I mean, I think it would have been much harder for me if everybody had to leave, then I would have to start the whole acclimation scenario all over again. And so I just thought, well, let's just go with what we have and work with that. I thought it'd just be a better response.

CONAN: But do you feel badly that your departure now, everybody's leaving?

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, in one way, of course for the people that would like to stay, and I think there were others that thought maybe it was time for them to continue on with some other portion of their lives. And for the ones that wanted to stay, I kind of understand new management coming in and bringing their team with them and all that. So there's, you know, logic in both sides of it. Whatever makes you feel more comfortable with it. Of course, you would like the people that wanted to stay to be - to have that choice.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. EUBANKS: But such is the way of, you know, politics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get some callers involved in the conversation. Of course, you know the laugh, we're talking with Kevin Eubanks. First caller, let's go to, this is Alan(ph). Alan with us from Rebels Creek in North Carolina.

ALAN (Caller): Hi, how are you doing today?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

Mr. EUBANKS: Hi, Alan.

ALAN: Yeah. And Kevin, I got to tell you, I had a show called "Jazz at Dawn" at a public radio station in Spindale, here in North Carolina and I played a whole bunch of variety of stuff. But what I'd do every now and then was, I did like a bandleaders and name them. You know, call up and then who is this? And nine out of 10 times, they always got you. They always said, is that Kevin? (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALAN: ...because of your style and just your fluidity I guess and just, you know, the presence and I'd segue there into somebody named Paul, but we won't go into that.

Mr. EUBANKS: Please don't.

CONAN: Yeah.

ALAN: But it was really a treat to play your music over the air and then share that with people, and they loved it.

Mr. EUBANKS: Alan, thanks so much, man. That's really sweet of you, man. And the public doing that, the public broadcasting, that's great in and of itself.

ALAN: Well, thanks for your music and I'll get off here.

CONAN: Okay, Alan, thanks for the call. Sean writes from St. Paul, Minnesota. I recently accepted a position as the bandleader for a hip-hop artist named Dessa. How did you deal with the change from a non-hierarchy experience of many young bands to the new responsibilities of being a bandleader? How did you keep your friendships and morale up while handling the leadership? And are you related to Robin Eubanks? I'm seeing him with Dave Holland tonight in Minneapolis.

Mr. EUBANKS: Wow. Tell Robin I said hi. That's my dear brother. And that's going to be a great show. Dave Holland's band is always kicking. As far as remaining at peace with everyone once you are a bandleader, it's a thin line between doing what you need to do for the team and having each individual be accepting of it. But if you do the right things for the right reasons and keep a cool head while you're doing it and everybody comes out okay, they go this distance and it all worked out. They go this distance and it all worked out. After a while they start trusting you and just kind of keep your cool, make the right decisions. You got that position for, you know, for the right reasons. It'll all work out. But you can't - you know, Bill Cosby once told me that, you know, you guys know what the secret of success is, but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone. So you can't do that. But...

CONAN: That's good advice.

Mr. EUBANKS: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. Sean, we wish you the best of luck with your new gig. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's start with Toby(ph). Toby with us from Chapel Hill.

TOBY (Caller): Hi, Neal. Hi, Kevin. I just have a quick question. I have played music by ear for years and years, for 40 plus years, and I know a lot of gifted musicians who can't read music. And I was just wondering, has there ever been any room in any of your bands for people who don't read music?

Mr. EUBANKS: Absolutely. At the end of the day, as long as you're playing the music that you need to play for the performance and you're not terribly holding up the cart while we're getting to that end, then it's fine with me. As - you know, because as long as the music feels great, sounds great and everybody is into it, I don't really - it makes no difference to me whether you meet - read music or not, as long as everything - you keep up with everybody, or in some cases, go ahead of everybody and we have to follow you. Because the end result is about the music and relating to the people and that's the point. So I don't...

TOBY: Well, fantastic. So are you taking applications?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: Not at the moment. No, I'm still trying to figure out, you know, which turns I'm going to be making myself, but I appreciate it, Toby.

TOBY: Okay. Well, thank you for the years of entertainment.

Mr. EUBANKS: Thanks for watching.

CONAN: And thanks for the call, Toby.

We're talking with Kevin Eubanks. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Max(ph) on the line. Max is with us - a lot of callers from North Carolina - from Goldsboro, North Carolina.

MAX (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon, guys. Love your music. I have just two things. I was aware that Thelonious Monk was actually born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. And I wanted to ask Mr. Eubanks about the new challenges of working with the Thelonious Monk Institute.

Mr. EUBANKS: That's a wonderful opportunity I've been offered. And that's - my portion of that is going into high schools and trying to inspire their music and arts programs to continue finding students that are extremely gifted and trying to place them with colleges that have summer programs, so they can possibly be recruited by these colleges to attend school there if it's a good fit and things like that, and just try and get the organizations to donate money to the Thelonious Monk Institute, so they can do more by way of helping students that want to pursue the arts and things like that.

And even if they are not going to pursue music as a living, just having somebody support them in whatever it is they're doing will create them to have a reason to focus and understand themselves a lot better. And they just become better students in general once they become better music or arts students, so. And it's given me an opportunity to see inside of high schools in the California area, in some of them - there's a very desperate disparity between some of the schools and what they have available to them in other schools.

So next year - they don't know this yet - but next year, as the director of this program, I'm going to try and bring students from one school into the other school and students from school B back into school A, so...


Mr. EUBANKS: ...they can get a different view of how they - their opportunities to learn and the conditions that they have to learn under. And I'd like to put a concert together - which they have been doing, but I want to do it differently next year - where the concert, the rehearsals for it actually take place in each of the different neighborhoods that the schools rest in. So they get to see a bit more of what goes into the whole thing, because I notice something kind of interesting when we all came together at this. Well, one student, in particular, I brought him to another school and it was a pretty interesting exchange. So I'd like to pursue that more. So there's a lot of challenges and a lot of ideas that can come out of that. So I'm just kind of getting used to that post so hopefully some good things will come out of that.

CONAN: Max, thanks very much.

MAX: Thank you.

CONAN: Finally, this email from Dennis(ph) in Memphis. Kevin, I've watched you for years. Please talk a little about your guitars. I don't recognize a single one you've played, and I'd been at it since the late 1950.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: That's because a friend of mine named Abe Rivera, he lives in Long Island, New York, makes all my guitars for me except for the one that Dick Boak over at Martin Guitars made for me. But all the other guitars are made by Abe Rivera. And he's kind of an old school guitar builder. He builds them by hand by himself, no apprentice. And he's father was a violin and cello maker.

So he does all the work in his bathroom, drives his wife crazy and, you know, dries the wood out in the backyard and everything. So I actually got turned on to him as a builder through Pat Martino, a fellow Philadelphian. So that's why you probably don't recognize them because they're very particular and by this one builder.

CONAN: Kevin Eubanks, we wish you the best of luck. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. EUBANKS: Thank you so much. Thank you.

CONAN: Kevin Eubanks, former leader of "The Tonight Show" Band, now artistic director for the Thelonious Monk Institute's Jazz in the Classroom Program. He joined us from our bureau in New York. He was the musical guest on his final "Tonight Show" broadcast. We'll end this program with the original ballad he performed that night called "Adoration."

(Soundbite of song, "Adoration")

CONAN: Tomorrow, MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep joins us to talk about his trip across Pakistan and what he learned along the Grand Trunk Road.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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