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Kevin Eubanks’ Remarkable Life Journey

A look at the guitarist's career from Philadelphia to Boston to New York to Hollywood

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Kevin Eubanks (photo: Anna Webber)
Kevin Eubanks (photo: Anna Webber)

When you’re on TV, everybody knows you, or at least thinks they know you. Take Kevin Eubanks, who was on NBC’s Tonight Show five nights a week for 18 years, the first three as a bandmember and the rest as bandleader. Jazz aficionados may know Eubanks for his prolific years before and after that show as a gifted guitarist with chops and taste, but most people know him only as Jay Leno’s affable sidekick. What neither party likely knows are his passion for rhythm guitar, his comfort with playing free, his love for the organ in gospel music, his accomplishments as a presenter at tech conferences, and his commitment to education. Kevin Eubanks is not a man on a mission. He’s a man on many missions.

“I see a disparity or space between society and jazz now,” he says. “During the magical period back in the ’50s and ’60s, it was tied to what was happening in the world. Jazz music was still relevant to what was going on in everyday society and the struggle that people were going through. It wasn’t just in and of itself, like ‘Listen to what we do.’ But we’re not listening to society.”

Eubanks knows something about listening, as he shows on his latest album EEE (Eubanks-Evans-Experience), a stripped-down duo recording with pianist and fellow Philadelphia native Orrin Evans. In the tradition of Bill Evans and Jim Hall’s Undercurrent (released 60 years ago), the two show a chemistry born out of common roots and influences. There’s no question that the music and people of Philly shaped Eubanks, who was born there in 1957.

Growing up as a member of one of the city’s many notable jazz families (his uncles were pianist Ray Bryant and bassist Tommy Bryant, while brothers Robin and Duane are respected jazz players), Eubanks came relatively late to the genre. His first instruments were violin and trumpet. He describes himself as terrible on the latter, and he quickly passed it on to younger brother Duane, who thrived with it. Violin was Kevin’s passion, so much so that he was playing in district orchestras. But, also drawn to the guitar, he soon found himself playing the popular music of the ’60s and ’70s—soul, rock, and funk—in various bands around town beginning at age 13. 

“One of my few regrets is ‘Why did I stop playing the violin?’” he says. “Not that I would have wanted to play it instead of guitar, [but] because all that [classical training] translates into when you start playing jazz. You have to understand the music, and after a while you start hearing it and it flows more.” 

At the same time, Kevin’s uncle Ray would be coming over to the house and playing jazz for the Eubanks brothers. “I would listen to my uncle’s records,” he recalls. “I started checking out Wes Montgomery. Then everything changed because the door of jazz music opened up for me. That really inspired me to want to learn more about harmony and melody and how everything is connected. When I was really young, I couldn’t relate to it. But every year it just got deeper and deeper.” One of his early favorites was Oscar Peterson’s solo piano record Tracks; he also became fond of Peterson’s records with Herb Ellis on guitar, providing a blueprint of sorts for his most recent collaboration.

Kevin Eubanks (L) and Orrin Evans (photo: Anna Webber)
Kevin Eubanks (L) and Orrin Evans (photo: Anna Webber)

Taken to Church

Eubanks was also listening early on to gospel music, thanks to his mother Vera. A pianist with a master’s degree in music education and a public-school music teacher, she played the Hammond organ for the local church. “I got so used to being in church all the time,” Eubanks explains. “I loved gospel music because it was like funk in a way. They weren’t professional musicians. It was the congregation of the church. The feeling of it was such a release. I was just a kid and went to all the rehearsals, even the choir. I still love listening to gospel. That jamming gospel music was embedded in Sly and the Family Stone. With certain blues and funk, you can draw an arrow straight to church music. Some of those blues players sounded like preachers.” 

He says that his mother, now in her nineties and residing outside Philadelphia, still has an affinity for funky organ players with a gospel feel, counting Cory Henry as one of her current favorites: “I turned my mom onto him and now when I get home, she says, ‘Put my man on.’ When she hears gospel with some funk in it, she’s all in.”

As a budding jazz musician, Eubanks found himself at Berklee, one of the few schools then offering degree programs in non-classical music. There he would end up not only forming long-lasting relationships with peers like Branford Marsalis, Marvin “Smitty” Smith and Tommy Campbell, but also coming away with a different way of looking at his instrument. After a few lessons, his primary guitar teacher John Amaral told him, “I’m never going to be able to play the guitar as well as you do. However, what I can do for you is open your creativity and help with how you get from this point to that point.” 

Amaral proceeded to send Eubanks to the bookstore for broader creative lessons. He also told his student not to practice in the same spot each time. To change his clothes. To put on different colored socks. To stare at a wall for 10 minutes before practicing. “He wanted to disrupt my habits,” Eubanks explains. “Once you get into habits, your creativity starts to shut down. His process with me was really good. He was more of a teacher for opening up my creative juices.”

Like many Berklee students before and after him, Eubanks learned perhaps his greatest lessons while playing with his fellow students in the practice rooms and the local clubs. “The place that I played all the time was Pooh’s Pub, along with Tommy Campbell, [keyboardist] Gerry Etkins and [bassist] Baron Browne,” he says. “Everybody had their own club; Michael’s was more of Mike Stern’s place. But Berklee was inundated with guitar players then. It was a beautiful place to learn. We played all the time.” 

Marsalis, then a fellow Berklee student, recalls seeing Eubanks at Pooh’s: “He was just killing. We hit it off. He’s funny, though way more introverted than me. There was a group of us that hung out.”

Eubanks notes that the hang was crucial back then. “It’s a natural networking thing, though you don’t look at it that way,” he observes. “The thing we all had in common was that we were all broke. So we jammed all the time. We didn’t have anything else to do. It was a great experience with all the talent there from the same generation.”

One summer he got a job touring with Dutch flutist Chris Hinze in a jazz-rock band populated by Berklee guys. “That was my first time in Europe and it was a long tour,” he recalls. “I get back to Boston and not too long after that Branford told me, ‘Art Blakey is coming to town and he’s looking to put a band together and he’s looking for a guitar player.’ We go to Lulu White’s [another Boston club] and before you know it, I was in the band.” It was Blakey’s big band with Wynton and Branford Marsalis (the latter on baritone), Billy Pierce, Bobby Watson, Kevin’s brother Robin, James Williams, and Charles Fambrough. It was also one of the few times Blakey had a guitar player in his group. Eubanks says that experience taught him the importance of dedication. “You gotta put your heart into it,” he says. “You gotta let it out. You can’t be back there playing some licks that you know. You’re a Messenger.”

“The thing we all had in common [at Berklee] was that we were all broke. So we jammed all the time. We didn’t have anything else to do.”

Clubbing and Comping

After that 1980 tour and one live recording at Montreux with Blakey, virtually all of the Berklee alums decided to move to NYC. Robin had already been going back and forth between Boston and New York, and he found an apartment not too far from Slide Hampton, an important mentor to both him and Kevin. “I went to New York with 800 bucks in my pocket, and I took day jobs at restaurants and cafes making sandwiches,” he says. “You could get through it. There were four of us in a one-bedroom apartment: Sam Allen, a drummer, with Robin, Ralph Moore and me.” Welcome to New York.

The new jazz kid in town, Eubanks was drawn to the scene at Bradley’s, where he became a regular, first as a listener and later as a player. “With three sets, I didn’t get out of there until 2 or 3 in the morning. They would let me sip on a beer because I was so broke. After all the other places like the Vanguard or Sweet Basil’s would close for the night, they’d still have another set at Bradley’s, so everybody came there. I was playing gigs around the city, working with Roy Haynes, so I got gigs there. After a while, I was a regular. I got to play with all the great piano players. Billy Higgins would come in with brushes and play on an LP cover.” Eubanks would later record an album Live at Bradley’s featuring Williams on piano and Robert Hurst on bass, released on Blue Note in 1994.

Eubanks also went to school playing with Haynes in the early ’80s. “I would watch his snare drum,” he explains. “The way he’d hit the snare was the same as comping on the guitar. After a while you start to feel the flow of it.” A similar lesson about comping, albeit in a very different context, came while working with saxophonist Sam Rivers shortly thereafter. “It was all free music, but it had a rhyme and reason to it, always,” Eubanks explains. “The way Sam explained it to me one time was [imitates Rivers’ voice], ‘When we’re out there, I’m the comet, the big ball right in front, and you’re the tail. When you’re playing behind me you give me elevation, you keep me up there. Without the tail, I’ll start sinking. So you gotta keep me up there.’ After a while I started to understand what he was saying.”

Indeed, Eubanks gets impassioned talking about the importance of rhythm guitar. “I try to explain to people that when you’re comping, you’re making it easier for them to get where they’re going. Stop checking out all the soloists,” he says. “A lot of jazz guitarists, it takes them 20 years before they realize that they don’t play a horn, they play a guitar. We’re transcribing all these Cannonball and Trane and Hubbard solos. But if you listen to Basie’s band, what do you hear in the rhythm section? Freddie Green, with no amp in a grooving big band. I try to impart that to students so that they understand the power of rhythm guitar. Guitar players all over the world, in country music, in funk music, in blues music, in all of it, are playing behind vocalists like that. Playing rhythm guitar is not just playing rhythm. It’s harmony, it’s giving the space. The subtleties of the music come out in whatever kind of music it is. Don’t get so wrapped up in playing solos. 

“Listen to Wes Montgomery comping behind someone,” he continues. “The steadiness of it. Not redundant. A lot of his comping is just three-note chords, he comes in and out. It fits so well. Once you get into playing rhythm guitar, it opens up so much else. And you’ll have more options to make a living.”

While recognizing Montgomery’s influence, Marsalis sees Eubanks as having a unique sound of his own. “Kevin doesn’t play with a pick, so he has a more robust sound on the instrument,” Marsalis explains. “He has a heavy sound, which I love. He doesn’t rely on gimmicks or effects or pedals. He just plays the guitar. The sound and colors change when he plays, and I think a lot of it is because he has such a physical approach to the instrument.”

Kevin Eubanks (photo: Anna Webber)
Kevin Eubanks (photo: Anna Webber)

TV Land

As he had with Blakey, Eubanks followed his brother into Dave Holland’s band. “I used to listen to them with Robin in the band and I would say, ‘I would sound great with this band because it’s so open.’ Maybe Robin said something to Dave, but he said, ‘Oh, you want to sit in?’ From that moment we just said, ‘Let’s play some more.’ We started talking. And I told him I had played with Sam. He said, ‘You played with Sam?’ I said, ‘Yeah, for almost three years.’ We had a lot of things in common and we synched together. Tony Williams once said, ‘When you can play the most creative music with the least energy, it can go so many places.’ When I’m playing with Dave, we can create so much with the least amount of energy, so that gives us so much overhead space to go here or there.”

In the ensuing years, Eubanks would go on to a successful career as a bandleader himself, recording his debut album Guitarist for Elektra/Musician in 1983, followed by more than a dozen albums for GRP and Blue Note, as well as sharing stages with many of his heroes and fellow Berklee alums. But it was his long-running job with The Tonight Show that unexpectedly thrust him into a higher profile. Around 1992, Eubanks was on tour in Europe with Marsalis, who mentioned that he would be putting together a band for Jay Leno; would the guitarist want in? Eubanks said sure—then promptly forgot about it until he got a call months later from Marsalis. “He calls me and says, ‘Yo, we’re going to be in L.A. in a couple of weeks. Are you still down?’” he recalls. “I was living in Allentown.” Goodbye, Pennsylvania.  

“A lot of jazz guitarists, it takes them 20 years before they realize that they don’t play a horn, they play a guitar. Don’t get so wrapped up in playing solos.”

Migrating along with much of the band to Los Angeles, Eubanks would be the show’s guitarist for the next three years until Branford left the show in 1995. “The first two years, I could feel the musicianship leaving,” Marsalis explains. “I had to make a decision. I didn’t have time to dedicate myself to music to succeed on the level that I wanted to succeed on. It was easy for me to leave.” Eubanks took over the bandleader’s seat. Proud of his longtime friend and colleague, Marsalis adds, “Kevin wanted to do it and he did a great job.” 

Eubanks would not only work up the music for the intro and breaks (and write the show’s closing theme, “Kevin’s Country”), but also arrange the backing for the many musical guests. He thrived in the role of hip sidekick, his easy laugh and quick wit becoming a regular part of Leno’s monologues and repartee. That telegenic quality didn’t come naturally. “I was really shy to begin with,” he explains. “When I started there, it was easier because I was in the band. We did it every day and I got more comfortable with it. You just stop thinking about yourself when you’re doing it. The more comfortable you are with it, the more you are yourself. You’re not tense about it.”

Besides the obvious rewards of playing with notable artists, Eubanks says he enjoyed meeting the various guests, including politicians like Al Gore, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and John McCain. He developed a particular friendship with the senator from Arizona, who loved to talk college basketball with the guitarist. Bush spent 25 minutes comparing notes with Eubanks about the travails of touring. Eubanks played chess with Willie Nelson on his bus. On and on. You get the idea.

Eubanks believes that those 18 years of extraordinary experiences shaped him as a musician. “Music is a backstage pass to so many things,” he explains. “What changes you, your music changes with you. It’s not about a new scale or harmony.” Resigning from the show in 2010, Eubanks remained in L.A. and continued to snag TV gigs, including a fun appearance with his musical siblings on Family Feud. (They lost.) More importantly, he rebooted his career as a jazz bandleader and recording artist. He attributes much of the ease of his return to Denny Stillwell and Mack Avenue Records, who signed him and released his next four albums. He also resumed playing with Holland. 

Orrin Evans (L) and Kevin Eubanks (photo: Anna Webber)
Orrin Evans (L) and Kevin Eubanks (photo: Anna Webber)

The Experience

Eubanks’ current collaboration with Evans happened organically; the two have long been connected by family and friends in Philadelphia. “It was sort of inevitable. I can’t remember not knowing him. I said, ‘Orrin, what do you think about doing a duet record, just guitar and piano?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ Then the pandemic happened. I love playing with a piano, as long as you can make it fit—and it’s hard to make it fit. But Bradley’s was like a training ground for this.  And I grew up with piano with my mom and Ray. I sometimes wonder if I should have been a piano player.”

Despite his love of the instrument, Eubanks recognizes that guitar and piano aren’t the most natural pairing; looking at jazz’s history, you’ll only find a few examples, most notably Evans and Hall and, more recently, Russell Malone and Benny Green. “Yes, guitar and organ is a more natural pairing,” he concurs. “I got into Oscar Peterson real heavy. I loved Herb Ellis with Oscar, so smooth. I was just so happy to hear guitar with Oscar Peterson.”

Eubanks points out that one thing he and Evans share is that they both like pretty- sounding tunes, as evidenced by their rendition of Tom Browne’s “Dreams of Lovin’ You” on the new album. Surprisingly, the choice of that disco-era nugget came from Evans, not Eubanks. “I said to him, ‘Tom Browne? That’s early-’80s stuff.’ It calmed me down. It sounds sweet. Orrin and I play well together. Sometimes we just do solo guitar or piano. And we can segue right from one thing to another. At the beginning it’s pretty, and then it goes to excitement and aggression.” The two have already played several shows at clubs and theaters around the country and are planning more. In addition, both Eubanks and Evans are involved with the DC Jazz Festival, the guitarist as a board member and the pianist as artist-in-residence. 

Given all the people Eubanks has played with over the years, you have to wonder who’s on his bucket list of collaborators. He says there are a few, including Yo-Yo Ma and John McLaughlin: “I would like to play with John just with two guitars, playing early stuff from the Mahavishnu Orchestra.” And finally, his mother’s fave Cory Henry, bringing home that funky organ. “No one comps better than an organist who came up in a church with a preaching pastor,” he says. The same could be said about this guitarist. 

Kevin Eubanks: After The Tonight Show