Kevin Eubanks On Life After Leno A jazz guitarist and former Tonight Show bandleader, Eubanks talks with host Michel Martin about his hometown of Philadelphia, getting to play past the commercial break, the Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien debacle at NBC and how it affected him personally.
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Kevin Eubanks On Life After Leno

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Kevin Eubanks On Life After Leno

Kevin Eubanks On Life After Leno

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Up next, the part of the program we like to call Wisdom Watch. That's where we talk to people who have made a difference through their work and hopefully have some wisdom to share.

Today, we are pleased to welcome one of today's most recognizable jazz guitarist who also happens to be known for his playful personality almost as much as his masterful playing. Let's see if you can figure out who this is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show")

Mr. KEVIN EUBANKS (Musician): Who's the newscaster there?

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show"): That was...

Mr. EUBANKS: She was fine. Who was that?

Mr. LENO: Oh, Cameron Hall. She's very pretty, isn't she? (unintelligible)

Mr. EUBANKS: Yeah. How come you never you never took a brother up (unintelligible)?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENO: You know, when I'm watching the news, I don't think to myself, oh, how can I hook Kevin up? That's not my priority.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Of course that is Kevin Eubanks. He's chatting with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show." Eubanks served as the band leader for 15 years until he recently announced that he was stepping down to focus on his recording career. In fact, he's got a new CD out in October. And he was recently honored by his hometown of Philadelphia. He's with us now from there. Welcome, thank you for joining us. And congratulations.

Mr. EUBANKS: Hi. Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: You were just honored with a plaque on the Philadelphia walk of fame.

Mr. EUBANKS: Yes, I was. And I also had a wonderful award bestowed on me at the my hometown baseball team, the Phillies, by The Sound of Philadelphia, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. It was really a great time in Philly and it was quite a thing for me. It's hard to put it into words, to come home to something like that. It was really a lot deeper than I thought it was going to be.

MARTIN: Really? Tell me about that, because a lot of artists kind of have ambivalent feelings about awards. On the hand they think, well, you know, the work is my award. On the other hand, it is kind of special to be appreciated by legendary artists in your hometown. So, can you try to put it into words? What is felt like, what it meant.

Mr. EUBANKS: I think one of the surprising things, it made me kind of take a breath and reflect on some things that maybe we don't get to do that much because we're so busy going from one thing into the next thing that we don't get a lot of time to appreciate the things we've just done or at least kind of sit back and say, did I do as good a job as I wanted to do?

I mean, the fast pace of our lives these days, once you finish something, before you even finish, you're on to the next thing and you don't really get a chance to kind of sit back and take a breath. So when you come home and there's a ceremony for you and people are saying, oh, he did this particular thing or did that particular thing, you kind of get to reflect on that.

But the fact that people take the time to slow things down and let you know that they appreciate the things that you've done, I think we could all, on any job that we're doing, would give us a good sense of self. And the fact that my parents were there, you know. All of that was kind of given to me. But to me, I'm kind of passing it off and I'm giving it to my parents. So I was really happy that they were there, because they're largely responsible for all of it.

MARTIN: Well, tell me a little bit more about your parents, if you would. I understand that you grew up in a musical family, that your mother and uncle were or are both musicians. I understand your brother's a trombonist. So, tell me a little bit about your own musical journey. Did you always know or think you would be a musician?

Mr. EUBANKS: Pretty much, yeah. I grew up in a musical family. Of course from my recollections I hear my mother teaching piano lessons or playing being a music director in a church wherever she was at. There was just music all around. And my uncle, Ray Bryant, is a very famous pianist. And he used to play with Miles and train a lot of people. And they would rehearse at the house and we would know what was going on.

And my uncle Ray would bring people by the house to rehearse, like Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson and, it's like that. But we had no idea who these people were. We were just kids and they would want us to get out of the room because we made too much noise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: So, and my mother would, you know, she'd be teaching piano lessons on the weekends. So it was just the environment of the house. And my father was a detective for the Philadelphia Police Department, so I had a good mixture of discipline and creativity and music that I grew up on. And I'm pretty happy about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Your background as a detective must have been good experience being a band leader.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, it's a good structure for discipline, and you need that. And I always wondered when I was working with "The Tonight Show," I said, what made me what gave me the prerequisites to do this job with, you know, a certain amount of ease and longevity? And I think it was that the mixture of discipline and creativity and music and thats basically what my childhood was largely rooted in. So it kind of hit me one day, and its like wow, you know, this is certainly coming in handy.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I was curious about that, how you balanced the demands of being a bandleader and a broadcast personality with wanting to do your own creative work. Now you moved to L.A. to be on The Tonight Show in 1992.

Mr. EUBANKS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Thats the year you put out the album Turning Point. Lets play a little bit.

(Soundbite of song, Turning Point)

MARTIN: You see weve let it run a little bit because we want people to hear you play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: Actually play. When you announced that you were leaving the program, one of the things that you said is that, you know what, I kind of want to play a little bit longer than playing into the commercial break.

Mr. EUBANKS: Right. Right.

MARTIN: So, I did want to ask, has that been frustrating for you?

Mr. EUBANKS: No, no, not at all. One of the reasons I was fortunate enough to be asked to go to The Tonight Show and accept it was because I had been on the road for a good 15 years playing with artists from Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner and Dave Holland and my own groups and after a while I kind of had enough of traveling around saying goodbye to everybody I said hello to two days earlier. And even when I came home Id be saying goodbye because I had to get ready to go back on the road, which is really what I always wanted to do.

But even that, after a while, you know, I just didnt want to say goodbye to people all the time. I was a little bit frustrated with living out of suitcases all the time and all that and I just needed a break from that. And fortunately, I was asked to go to L.A. and be a part of that show.

But when I went to L.A., I didnt have a conflict of interest between what the job needed and, you know, what I was asked to do. So there was no part of me taking too much playing or creativity into that situation. It was really about learning a new skill set in order to match what was needed on the show. And I didnt have any problem with that at all because I grew up playing a lot of those same classic rock songs.

I mean, the Rolling Stones tunes, Chicago tunes, Earth, Wind and Fire, things like that. And I enjoyed playing those songs as a child learning how to play and those were the concerts that I went to see, so I just pulled on that experience in order to pull the songs that the show needed. So I didnt feel that it was frustrating in any way and things like that.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. EUBANKS: Driving on five and six lanes of traffic every morning, that was a little frustrating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You drove yourself? I thought you would...

Mr. EUBANKS: Well...

MARTIN: I didnt know you drove yourself. I thought you would have like a driver or something. No?

Mr. EUBANKS: No. No. No. You know, this was basically a 9 to 5 gig. You get up. You do what you have to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: You get in the car. You do your commute and all that and find your shortcuts to work, if there are any that day, and do your thing and go back home. That was a different thing to get use to. So...

MARTIN: Did you feel you were losing your street cred at all, your kind of dangerous side? You know, jazz musicians, you know, that whole jazz musician joke, creatures of the night and all that. Youre like...

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, some of that we could afford to lose. I think sometimes we romanticize some of the, you know, the lesser things about the music that have absolutely very little to do with the music, so some of that should we could learn to lose some of that. And the broad appeal of jazz has suffered because weve kind of characterized jazz in such a small myopic way that, you know, youre the hippest one in the room and then you turn around youre the only one in the room and for some reason youre supposed to get some status from that.

I'm not quite sure how that works in real life, but coming up through that whole thing and then seeing a whole other side of it in L.A. and in television and now wanting to come back into something of that again, not exactly the same thing. I dont intend to only play jazz music. I want to play a lot of music. I just want to play heartfelt and passionate music by the musicians who are playing it. To me, thats music whatever name you want to put to it.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're visiting with a name you certainly know and a voice you certainly know. Kevin Eubanks is a former bandleader of The Tonight Show. He served as bandleader for 15 years, was with The Tonight Show for 18 years overall. We're speaking to him from Philadelphia where he just received his own plaque on the Philadelphia Walk of Fame.

So how did you come to the decision to leave now? I mean, was it something that had been in process or did you have some internal deadline for yourself that you were meeting? How did you decide that now was the time?

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, I think we all have internal deadlines that we either acknowledge and deal with or we dont acknowledge and they deal with us and this just happened to be one of those times that it happened and it just keeps building in you and building and you go, like, no I dont want to go. I dont want to go. Its cool and its a great gig and the whole thing. And, you know, I'm meeting all these people and having all these different experiences.

And then, you know, you put it aside for a little while longer and you put it aside for a little while longer and then, you know, you start having dreams about things and your body starts talking to you and reminding you that, you know, theres other things in life that you have to listen to besides the pop culture of the day.

You know, I think everybody goes through this with different things in their lives. Whether its in relationships, whether its their jobs and it may not be something in particular about the situation youre in. The situation is good and the whole thing, but we do have to live through things and we do grow up and we do grow older and we do see things changing in the world and youre a part of that and its just time. So lets not make a big drama and all that, lets just go with it and see what happens, you know?

MARTIN: Well, how did Jay Leno take the news? Because I have to say - and I'm obviously, I'm totally making this up but he seemed sad when he announced it to me - to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, Jay and I are...

MARTIN: Because you two had become quite the team. I mean youre not, you know, just. Being a bandleader is significant enough, but you were really kind of his comedy partner for part of the a good part of the program.

Mr. EUBANKS: Yeah. Well, yeah, we developed a...

MARTIN: How did he take it?

Mr. EUBANKS: ...quite a friendship and quite a work relationship over the past 18 years. And even before I became bandleader, Jay and I, we just talked. We just hung out. If we saw each other in the hallway or outside in the parking lot, for some reason we just had more to say to each other about anything. It was just easy to talk with each other and, of course, that made it easier to work on camera and that became a part of the show.

So when all this started happening, little by little I would say something to him about it and this and that, and then he started really understanding what I was saying and he felt it and all that. And, you know, so we both got cool with it and talked it through and all that. And we were both pretty sad about it. But the one thing we were happy about was that it came from a positive place. It just was simply somebody growing into a different part of their life and, you know, which we all have to face even Jay.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you before I let you go, I have a couple more questions for you. Youve been very generous with your time. I've actually its the longest I've ever heard you talk and uninterrupted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But that whole controversy with Conan OBrien over the time slot, how did that affect you?

Mr. EUBANKS: It affected us. The short answer is that it made us look over our shoulders. It made us feel that we were being watched. I felt a little bit strange in that you'd have a number one show and all of a sudden you get taken away from a number one show and put on an experimental show and then, you know, and they say, oh, you failed at that and, you know, and then you get put back at 11:30. I mean, but in another sense, you know, you really have nothing to do with that and you have to remember that youre an employee of a company of a corporate company and somebody makes these decisions and you have to focus on your job.

There might be a lot of things that are going on at a hospital that the doctor doesnt like, but when hes coming and operating on you or your kids you want him to put that out of his or her mind and focus on the job at hand. The test of your professionalism and, you know, your ability to focus comes into play now and you reach back on some of dads discipline and go in and do the work and do as good a job as you can.

MARTIN: How do you think youre going to feel in September? I dont know if you remember being a student or the first time you weren't a student and you go back in September and you realize youre not going back to class. You know, remember?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: How do you think youre going to feel when the new season starts in September and youre going to wake up and say, I'm not going back to class? How do you think that's going to feel?

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, I just think its just a matter of time. You just got to let things set in and go through it. And I still watch the show. I talk to people at the show and its just something that you kind of maturate into. And you just go through it and you move on with your life and have confidence in whats going on and all that. I just think its - just take it as a natural occurrence and go along with it and enjoy it.

MARTIN: Well, youve actually been sharing some wisdom with us throughout our conversation. But we do like to end these conversations with asking the specific question. Do you have any wisdom to share with us, perhaps if youre speaking to a younger you or whoever else you might have in your minds eye?

Mr. EUBANKS: Yes. I would say that a wonderful thing to do is to try and feel things more inclusively instead of exclusively. The more things that can make up the whole, invite that into your life. If you have someone that can do something and you can do something and you do this particular thing together, that you both will learn and the project that you do will be broader, more pervasive and more rewarding.

And that goes across economic lines, racial lines, religious lines. So the more we work or just are conscious of how much bigger and broader and more pervasively accepting that including people and things and ideas are, the better off we're going to be or we're going to have an increasingly difficult time at being human.

MARTIN: Well, come back and see us when you want to talk after the next thing, wherever the next thing is whenever that is.

Mr. EUBANKS: Well, I hope to do so. I want to get to playing some music and wherever that takes me I'd love to share it with everybody at some point.

MARTIN: Kevin Eubanks is a former bandleader of The Tonight Show. He served as bandleader for 15 years, was with The Tonight Show for 18 years overall. We spoke to him from Philadelphia where he recently received his own plaque on the Philadelphia Walk of Fame.

Kevin Eubanks, thank you so much for thank you first of all for 18 years of fun, 15 years as leader and of enjoyment in late-night, and thank you for speaking with us today.

Mr. EUBANKS: It is my pleasure. And by the way, I really love NPR and Public Radio. Its really its one of the stations that I listen to on my commute back and forth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUBANKS: I would listen to all the time, so I want to thank NPR for being here as well.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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