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: The Chat Room | SO SoCal

Kevin Eubanks on Jay's jokes, Branford's legacy and TV music after midnight.

September 07, 1997|Steve Pond

A prolific guitarist with a warm, melodic touch, Kevin Eubanks has seen his jazz career eclipsed by his gig as musical director on the "Tonight Show." Eubanks played under Branford Marsalis during Jay Leno's grim post-Carson days and replaced the bandleader in April 1995; two months later the "Tonight Show" beat "Late Night With David Letterman" in the ratings. Now in his sixth season, Eubanks spoke in his dressing room before the show.

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Q: You and Jay seem to strike a chord with each other; Jay and Branford didn't.

A: One thing is just chemistry. If Jay and I were to meet at a dinner party, our natural inclination to talk is probably stronger than his and Branford's.

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Q: A lot of people thought Branford was going to bring serious jazz to TV, but that never happened.

A: When Branford took the job, they said, "You can play whatever you want to play." That was part of the reason he took it. But when Letterman started kicking our butts, they said he had to start playing more popular music, stuff he wasn't into. But I've played a ton of different kinds of music. I've been criticized through my career for that, but that's the greatest thing for this gig, to dig Crazy Horse and Wes Montgomery and James Brown.

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Q: Any opinions on "Tonight Show" musical guests?

A: To tell you the truth, I'm not a big fan of the music that comes through here. I feel a little strange about that, being the musical director and having nothing to do with that part of the show. Every now and then there's some good stuff. But mostly I get the feeling [if] it's No. 1 in Billboard, it's got the bullet, it's sold a kazillion records, bring em' on. And it always sucks. Always.

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Q: When you and Jay talk, you often have a look that seems to say, "I can't believe I'm doing this."

A: [laughs] That's because sometimes I see where Jay is going with a joke, and I get caught in a predicament. I'm there to support the jokes, but when I do that people think I must believe the core of the jokes: I think O.J. is guilty, too, or I think Michael Jackson is . . . whatever he is.

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Q: Does it bother you to be thought of as a sidekick?

A: Sometimes I think: Am I being true to myself and my talent, or am I cutting myself short? I've been thinking about that a lot lately. But somewhere along the road, I've picked up the prerequisites for doing this job. It's beyond me how I did it, but I did. And when I get down because I'm not playing enough guitar, I have to ask myself, "If I'm communicating with people, shouldn't I be happy to touch them in whatever medium I can?"

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