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Moonlight Serenade

Marvin Smith grooves in the clubs, but he's not ready to give up his 'Tonight' day job

July 23, 2002|SORINA DIACONESCU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By all accounts, drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith has a cushy job.

As the rhythm backbone on a television orchestra known the world over as the Tonight Show Band, for about one hour each weekday afternoon he sits on a studio bandstand churning out musical vignettes and covers of rock songs in small spurts, and sending off the odd joke cracked by host Jay Leno.

So quick 'n' sweet is his day gig--a rim shot here, a drumroll there--that sometimes Smith gets itchy for the raw challenges of playing in a jazz club, which is what he did for 14 years in New York before he began his tenure at "The Tonight Show" in January 1995.

At such times, Smith gets out of the air-conditioned NBC studio in Burbank, packs a pared-down drum kit and high-tails it to some tiny venue around town. He did it last week for three nights, and as the musician bounced from TV Land to the intimate setup of a Hollywood jazz cafe, supplying droll beats and channeling subtle grooves were all within one day's work.

But before the jazzman can embark on a journey back to his club roots, he has business to attend to. A recent muggy afternoon finds Smith on the same Burbank sound stage he has been on for the past 7 1/2 years. "The show begins when the band starts to play," a "Tonight Show" emcee informs the studio crowd, already astir in their seats at the prospect of appearing on television. Smith assumes his position at a fancy-looking drum kit, behind a transparent plexiglass panel set against the show's instantly recognizable backdrop of the Los Angeles skyline at night. The shield is meant to muffle the snap-and-crackle of the drums; after all, this is a talk show, and guests and host need to hear each other. "If you got the drums just wide-open bleeding into every microphone, you're not gonna hear a thing" on television, he explains.

With the first commercial break underway, Smith & Co. launch into a soul groove, and the audience of 380--casually dressed and suspiciously better-looking than the average populace--leaps out of its seats to shake a heel.

No sooner do they quiet down than guest Dana Carvey marches on stage busting a collection of moves that range from his demented version of a Russian folk stomp to break dance. Smith drums up an appropriately eclectic beat to back up his routine.

"A lot of jazz musicians pretty much frown on doing a job like this, because they feel it's not creative and it's somewhat beneath the lofty aspirations of being a true artist," says Smith after the show. "We're looked upon as sellouts who just took the money and ran. On the flip side--it's steady work, there's good money in it, and it's easy to do. And you can make a good living, which of course," he says and chuckles, "is the other [thing] that every jazz musician aspires to."

The band then launches into a cover of the Beatles' "Come Together," as neon signs periodically flash the word "applause" to remind the audience to clap. Of covering rock songs, Smith says, "I still look at it as an opportunity to make music; I'm not compartmentalizing the stylistic idioms per se, thinking, 'Oh, I'm a jazz musician, I'm better than that.'

"It's all music; you still have to have a mind and creativity and some intellect to make a rock song sound good." He takes inspiration from his jazz hero Max Roach, who played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker but enthusiastically collaborated with musicians from other genres.

When the taping of the show wraps, Smith steps off stage cradling part of his drum set. "Oh, man, there's a crack in my cymbal," he says, frowning as he inspects it. Thankfully, he has spare drum kits at home--lots of them. "If you talk to my wife she will probably want to sell you some," he says with a smile. With that he's off to prepare for the set he is playing later in the club, already, as he put it, "vibing on the music."

It's hours past dusk when Smith sets up his drum set at Rocco's, a cavernous cafe with bare brick walls nestled on a gritty patch of Hollywood's Santa Monica Boulevard, for a "late hit" with pianist-composer Billy Childs and bassist Reggie Hamilton. The venue has a cozy, lived-in feel that couldn't be further from the dizzying hoopla of the "Tonight Show" studio. Several animal-print couches and rows of chairs lined up like pews in a church bask in dim, honeyed light. Peach curtains frame a tiny stage where plays are performed before jazz musicians take over to jam late into the night.

The set begins with a song called "Rubberman." A rapt audience of 13 sits quietly through the jazz improvisations spiced with classical stylings, which envelop the venue in a cozy cocoon of sound. Smith--eyes closed behind his glasses--punctuates the fat grooves of the stand-up bass with precise beats, as the piano leads the performance. This is more of a legitimate challenge to his skills.

When he moved from New York to Los Angeles to be on the "Tonight Show," Smith says that playing for only one hour each day delivered a big shock to his system.

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