Guitarist and composer Kevin Eubanks is the former music director of “The Tonight Show” band, appearing on the show for 18 years (1992-2010). His laid- back style and affability seems to belie the concentration and focus that have made him successful both as a consummate musician and a household name for late-night TV viewers.
He was born into a musical household in Philadelphia. His mother, Vera Eubanks, is a gospel and classical pianist and organist with a master’s degree in music education. She has taught both privately and in the school system, until her recent retirement. Her brother, the late Ray Bryant, was a journeyman jazz pianist who recorded and toured with jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan.
Kevin Eubanks was thus exposed to world-class music in his formative years as he began violin lessons, his first instrument, at age 7. His brother Robin is a trombonist, arranger and tenured professor at Oberlin College and brother Duane is a trumpet teacher and continues to expand his recording career. Kevin also studied the trumpet before committing to the guitar, which was solidified with his entrance to the Berklee College of Music in Boston from which he has received an honorary doctorate degree. He has also received an honorary doctorate from Redlands University in California.
He moved to New York after attending Berklee College of Music, where his career kicked off in earnest. He started playing with some of the greats of jazz, including Art Blakey, Slide Hampton, McCoy Tyner, Sam Rivers, Roy Haynes, Dave Holland, Ron Carter and others. In addition to working in other bands, he become the leader of his own group and traveled to Jordan, Pakistan, India and Kuwait on tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department, not to mention the European/Japanese jazz circuit.
His first album as a leader, “Guitarist,” was released on the Elektra label when he was 25. It documented a sophisticated, nuanced voice on the instrument, and was graced by the presence of some peers who are still performing with him today: tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore and his brother Robin. His cousins, the late bassist David Eubanks and the pianist Charles Eubanks, also appeared on the recording, which led to a seven-record contract with the GRP label, owned by Dave Grusin and the late Larry Rosen. Those recordings, based largely upon Eubanks’ compositions, showed the range of his skill on both acoustic and electric guitar.
In 1992, he moved to the West Coast to join “The Tonight Show” featuring Jay Leno. In 1995, Eubanks was asked the lead the band. His versatility and open- minded approach enabled him to write and choose music that satisfied the huge and varied audience. He assumed the role as Leno’s sidekick, sometimes participating in skits, and showcasing his personality as well as his musicianship. The position afforded him the opportunity to work with great and popular musicians from all genres. He has become involved in writing scores for TV movies and full-length independent feature films.
He loves to do volunteer work for charities and maintains an active relationship with the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. But his passion is clearly seen when he is onstage performing as he continues to embrace his true passion, the love of music.
A strong advocate for music education, Eubanks served as the artistic director of the Jazz in the Classroom Program for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz from 2010 to 2012, where he worked with middle- and high-school musicians in the Los Angeles public schools. “Young people need to be able to express themselves in ways that educate, uplift and inspire self-confidence,” Eubanks said. He has taught at the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp, the Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada, Rutgers University and at the Charlie Parker School in Perugia, Italy, as well as hosting master classes at colleges and universities.
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