Steady Gigs, Late Shows

Conan O’Brien looked determined. “Get out of the way!” he barked, barreling toward the bandstand with a sledgehammer. Richie Rosenberg—a.k.a. LaBamba, the fedora-topped trombonist in the Max Weinberg 7—hopped to one side, startled, as his upholstered music stand absorbed several hard whacks. Then, the coup de grâce: O’Brien grabbed an ax, severed the microphone cord and carried the bulky stand into the audience, as a kind of offering. Rosenberg stood by, clutching his sheet music and ruefully shaking his head.

This anarchic scene played out during one of the final episodes of NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien. The show’s prankish host, on track to take over the network’s august Tonight Show, had been mining his set for souvenirs all week. So his music-stand rampage was part of the gag, though it certainly seemed to catch everyone off guard. Less surprising was the declaration he made near the top of the show: Weinberg and the band would be joining him in Los Angeles when the new Tonight Show begins in June.

The late-night television landscape has seen tectonic changes recently, with plenty of musical implications. O’Brien’s signoff opened the door for a new Late Night host, Jimmy Fallon, who tapped hip-hop powerhouse the Roots as his band. Jay Leno announced his move to an earlier time slot, confirming that his house orchestra, led by guitarist Kevin Eubanks, would join him. Meanwhile things hummed reassuringly along for the Saturday Night Live Band, and for Paul Shaffer’s CBS Orchestra, an ever-boisterous fixture of Late Show with David Letterman.

There are jazz musicians in each of these unionized ensembles, and jazz plays a subtle but significant role in their activities. O’Brien’s catchy Late Night theme was a jump-swing ditty by saxophonist John Lurie (with Howard Shore), for starters. The cutaways on Saturday Night Live often involve bright flashes of solo extroversion, from tenor saxophonist Lenny Pickett or one of his trusted band members. Eubanks and his crew have been known to push a hard-bop angle, between doses of funk and rock. It’s not the Doc Severinsen era anymore, but it’s about as close as anyone might reasonably expect.

And in an odd way, the late-night musical mishmash echoes the polyglot feel of present-day jazz culture. It’s no longer the Doc Severinsen era in our realm, either; just flip through the pages of this magazine for confirmation. The jazz mainstream now regularly accommodates funk, rock, country and many strains of world music, sometimes with the same quick-flash sensibility one might notice on the air. And consider these jazzmen in Pickett’s posse, hailed precisely for their versatility: trombonist Steve Turre, who often touts his affinities for Latin jazz and R&B; bassist James Genus, who has toured with Herbie Hancock and Dave Douglas, hybridizers both; and saxophonist Ron Blake, whose most recent release, Shayari (Mack Avenue), reflects his faith in groove-based truths.

Of course there’s a fundamental tension between the creative freedoms of a jazz life and the rigid routine of a television gig. “The schedule of the show is relentless,” Shaffer told me recently, and he seemed to mean it almost in existential terms. (The title of his forthcoming memoir, written with David Ritz and due out in October, is We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives.) The rigors of such a schedule have exacted a toll on network-employed jazz musicians for years. Trumpeter Joe Wilder spent a sizeable chunk of his career under contract to ABC, when he wasn’t working with big bands; his headlining debut in a New York club came only a few years ago, when he was 83. For a less extreme case, try to recall the last time you heard new music from Eubanks, formerly one of the more prominent postbop guitarists around. (Chances are better if you live in Los Angeles; he apparently played a couple of nights at the Baked Potato in February.)

And, it could safely be argued, there’s a certain amount of debasement built into the job of a TV band. Here’s a brutal sentence from Wikipedia: “Aside from his music, Eubanks is known for his lingering, amused laughter following many of Leno’s sharper jokes, and for Leno routinely implying marijuana, pornography and masturbation addictions.” (Why doesn’t it feel as bullying when O’Brien teases his bandleader this way? Because Weinberg keeps a straight face? Or because his other gig is with Bruce Springsteen?)

Small wonder that Eubanks’ predecessor, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, lasted such a short time in his post. “The job of musical director, I found out later, was just to kiss the ass of the host,” he told a newspaper after his departure, “and I ain’t no ass-kisser.” What came next, after the dust had settled, was a new period of creative fecundity for Marsalis and his band. Which is why a part of me was excited for Eubanks and his sidemen, back when I thought that Leno would be going off the air.

“You’ll be neutered!” Marsalis reportedly told Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, the drummer and bandleader of the Roots, warning him against the Late Night gig. But as Thompson admitted to the Associated Press, the numbers were just too convincing. “This would basically match or surpass what we would make touring 200-plus days out of the year,” he said, adding that the group would be commuting from Philadelphia, its home. It’s easy enough to imagine the same rationalization from, say, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, who plays with Eubanks in the soon-to-be-renamed Tonight Show band.

The Roots have taken precautionary measures, though, that the likes of Eubanks might yet consider. After closing their first week on the job at Rockefeller Center, the hip-hop group also started a residency at the Highline Ballroom, some 30 blocks downtown. And along with rappers like Talib Kweli and Pharoahe Monch, they welcomed keyboardist Robert Glasper and, during one hypnotic stretch, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz. It was a jam session in every sense, and it felt like a necessary outpouring. As long as they have this pressure valve, they’ll probably be fine, right up until it’s sledgehammer time.

Originally published in May 2009

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