Born on November 15, 1957, in Philadelphia, PA; son of William (a corporate security manager) and Vera Eubanks (a music teacher). Education: Attended Berklee College of Music, 1976-79. Addresses: Business--The Tonight Show, 3000 W. Alameda Ave., Burbank, CA 91523, (818) 840-4444.
Kevin Eubanks, seasoned and respected jazz musician, stepped into the limelight as bandleader on NBC's The Tonight Show in 1995. Previous to his work on the long-running and successful late-night television show, Eubanks released several solo albums and worked with jazz musicians from Sam Rivers to Dave Holland. Aside from his time with The Tonight Show, Eubanks continues to pursue other interests, playing gigs regularly as a solo performer. Eubanks has also played alongside such acts as k. d. lang and Garth Brooks on The Tonight Show.
The foundation was laid for Eubanks's career during his childhood, growing up in a musical household in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His mother, Vera Eubanks, was a music teacher. His uncle was jazz pianist Ray Bryant. Kevin recalls, "Ray lived in New York, but when he came to Philly to play the Showboat [jazz club], he'd come over and rehearse.... So musicians were coming in and out all the time because our house was the place in Philly where there was a piano where they could rehearse," he told Down Beat. All three of his brothers--Robin, Duane, and Shane--also grew up to become musicians.
Eubanks started studying the violin when he was seven years old. He also began learning the piano and the trumpet at an early age. When he was 12 he attended a James Brown concert and resolved to learn to play the guitar. His parents protested, so he obtained a guitar on his own and taught himself to play. By the age of 13, he was playing in Philadelphia jazz clubs.
In 1976, Eubanks enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He became friends with saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Some of Eubanks's more traditional instructors found his method of playing the guitar without a pick unusual. Eubanks told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "The best part of the experience was meeting fellow musicians at the school, and from there getting to know everyone playing the Boston music scene."
Eubanks was influenced by many of the popular musicians of the time. "I liked all the usual suspects," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Earth, Wind & Fire. If it was something they were playing on the radio at [the] time, there's a good chance I was into it."
During the 1980s, Eubanks worked with many jazz greats, including Slide Hampton and Roy Haynes, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, and Gary Thomas. He also toured with Marsalis. Eubanks recorded Opening Nights, featuring Marsalis and Buster Williams, and Face to Face with Dave Grusin and Ron Carter. In 1983, he began bandleading on his own. He developed a strong reputation as a jazz guitarist with several albums of jazz and jazz fusion. In 1988, his album Shadow Prophets received more radio airplay than any other jazz recording that year. From 1989 to 1992, he toured with a small band that included his brother, Robin, as well as Dave Holland and Marvin "Smitty" Smith.
In 1992, Marsalis was chosen as the bandleader on The Tonight Show when Jay Leno replaced Johnny Carson. Marsalis asked Eubanks to join him in the band. Eubanks considered it an easy job compared with living on the road for 15 years. A few years later, in 1995, Marsalis left to spend more time with his son and work on his solo career. Leno appointed Eubanks the new bandleader. "Kevin's fun and has a great personality," Leno told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "When I spoke to famous musicians about who'd be the best for this gig, his name always came up. I like Kevin. He's naturally somewhat shy, but I can play off that." Eubanks's ability to play many different types of music gave him the flexibility needed to lead The Tonight Show band. His natural reserve made him an easy target for Leno to tease on camera. Eubanks placed his own stamp on the show, playing a variety of music but retaining jazz as the foundation. He also wrote the show's closing theme, entitled "Kevin's Country."
Eubanks's Tonight Show role allows him to play all types of music by giving him the chance to play with a diverse set of musicians. "I learn a whole lot," he told the Tennessean. "I love playing with Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, k.d. lang, Vince Gill. After a while you build up relationships with these people and you get to hang out with them. I got to hang out with Willie Nelson on his bus," he said. "I hope next time Buddy Guy is on I get to play with him." One of the challenges of leading The Tonight Show band is matching the music to the program, providing the right music for both the comedies and the interviews and pulling it all together to fit the format. At the same time, the band must seem not like a distinct entity, but as part of the show. "To see the band as separate from the show would be a mistake," Eubanks told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Part of our job is to glue the show together."
In order to assert his independence and play separately from The Tonight Show, Eubanks has played gigs on weekends at clubs around the country. In 2000, he began playing regularly on weekends at the Lounge at the Beach, next door to the Comedy & Magic Club where Leno performs. In a phone interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Eubanks said, "I enjoy playing with different people, leading my own band, and all the daily surprises and meeting of different people that come with working on The Tonight Show, but it's still great to spend some time each year getting out before live audiences and playing music that's entirely my own." Eubanks also co-wrote the 1995 how-to book, Kevin Eubanks: Creative Guitarist, which comes with a CD and offers technical pointers as well as a demonstration of the process he uses to adapt and create music in his own personal style.
Throughout the years, Eubanks has taken care of his body and has been featured in magazines for his fitness routines. He generally describes himself as a vegetarian but admitted on The Tonight Show that he does enjoy seafood. In July of 2000, he was featured in People magazine as one of the "100 Most Eligible Bachelors."
Still, all of this isn't enough to keep Eubanks busy. The overachiever has also composed music for movies and documentaries, including Rebound, directed by Eriq La Salle from the television series E.R.,and the five-part Public Broadcasting System (PBS) documentary Black Westerners that followed the stories of African American leaders and heroes who lived in the West. He has also made television guest appearances on V.I.P. and Muppets Tonight!He spends time volunteering with the Children's Hospital Teen Impact Program in Los Angeles, a program that provides support for teens undergoing cancer treatment.
by Sarah Parkin
Kevin Eubanks's Career
Began playing violin at age seven, then added piano and trumpet; started playing guitar in jazz clubs, age 13; took private lessons from Ted Dunbar; joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers Big Band for European tour, 1979; played jazz clubs in New York, worked with Slide Hampton and Roy Haynes, 1980s; played with Sam Rivers, 1982; toured England with Mike Gibbs band, began leading own groups, released his first recording, 1983; began playing for new house band on The Tonight Show under direction of Branford Marsalis, 1992; The Tonight Show bandleader, 1995-.
- Selected discography
- Kevin Eubanks: Guitarist , Elektra/Musician, 1983.
- Sundance , GRP, 1984.
- Face to Face , GRP, 1986.
- The Heat of Heat , GRP, 1987.
- The Searcher , GRP, 1988.
- Promise of Tomorrow , GRP, 1989.
- (With the Holland Quartet) Extensions , ECM, 1991.
- (With Robin Eubanks) Karma , JMT, 1991.
- Turning Point , Blue Note, 1992.
- Spiritalk , Blue Note, 1993.
- Spiritalk 2 : Revelations , Blue Note, 1995.
- The Best of Kevin Eubanks , GRP, 1996.
- Live at Bradley's , Blue Note, 1996.
- Film scores; as composer
- Psalms from the Underground , 1996.
- Rebound: The Legend of Earl 'The Goat' Manigault (television), 1996.
- The Dinner , 1997.
- The Week That Girl Died , 1998.
- Selected writings
- (With John Amaral) Kevin Eubanks: Creative Guitarist , Hal Leonard, 1995.
- Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 15, Gale Research, 1997.
- Down Beat, November 1995, p. 26.
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 11, 2000.
- Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 5, 1995, p. 10E.
- Tennesean, July 31, 1998, p. 19W.
- "Kevin Eubanks," Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com/Name?Eubanks,+Kevin (November 27, 2001).
- "Kevin Eubanks," NBC.com, http://www.nbc.com/The_Tonight_Show_with_Jay_Leno/bios/Kevin_Eubanks.html (November 27, 2001).