An Article for Jazz Educators
Interview with Guitarist Kevin Eubanks
By NAfME member Thomas J. Amoriello Jr.
Article originally published in NJ Music Educators Association journal, Tempo
It is safe to say that as bandleader for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno from 1995-2010, jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks is probably the most visible figure in the history of his instrument style. The jazz guitar was never featured in such a spotlight before. At its peak, the late night show ratings averaged 5.7 million viewers.
As a native of Philadelphia, Eubanks can be listed alongside many Philly jazz guitar figures (and educators) such as Eddie Lang, Pat Martino, Jimmy Bruno, Dennis Sandole, Joe Sgro, Joseph Federico and Tom Giacabetti, all from the City of Brotherly Love. If you are unfamiliar with some of these names then you are in for a treat.
Eubanks began his studies at the Settlement Music School in Philly and then studied at Rutgers with jazz educator Ted Dunbar, eventually completing his studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduating with a B.A. in composition.
He then went on to perform and record with jazz icons such as drummer Art Blakey, bassist Dave Holland, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Stanley Jordan. Eubanks joined the famous late night show as guitarist in 1992, when Branford Marsalis was the music director before he took over three years later when Marsalis stepped down.
The guitar in jazz has occupied many roles, such as the lead stylings of Charlie Christian, the “Four-to-the-bar” rhythm comping of Freddie Green, the octave technique of Wes Montgomery, the chord melody solos of Johnny Smith and Joe Pass, and the modern shredding of John McLaughlin. Over his long and successful career, Kevin has played comfortably in all of these styles without being an imitator. To put it simply, Kevin Eubanks can play the guitar very well.
You served as Artistic Director of the Thelonious Monk Institute’s Jazz in the Classroom program. What was your role and what was a rewarding experience that comes to mind?
For two years I served as Artistic Director of the Thelonious Monk Institute’s Jazz in the Classroom program. Traveling to different high schools in the Los Angeles area and a few cities around the country, I had a great opportunity to work with and learn from younger students involved with the arts. My general role was as teacher/coach. I tried to expand the perception of jazz in the minds of the students by inviting all of the students that were involved in any of the school’s arts programs to join us. By us, I mean the jazz department. I invited instrumentalists, vocalists, dancers, artists, actors, etc. The challenge was to create an all inclusive work/song/ presentation, in an hour and thirty minute comprehensive artistic session that utilized the creativity and open-mindedness of all the students. I coached and encouraged the students to use their talent creatively, trust in each other and the willingness to work together to enjoy the entire process. It was amazing to see the communication and how much could be done in such a relatively short time. Jazz is truly an amazing art form. It can range from the mind of a soloist to an entire arts program of contributing students. It is so important for a student’s growth in all areas of life, not just in music, to grasp the importance of creative solutions to problems one faces as a young person and eventually as an adult. My final question to the entire student arts body was one I unfortunately was never around to hear their answers. No matter. The important thing was if they would consider the question long after I was gone. I always asked, ”What if anything did you learn today based on how and what we accomplished in this room, in this auditorium, and what might be possible tomorrow, outside of this room, outside in the world? If YOU can’t find the solutions, no one will. The future of this world really is in your hands.”
I grew up with music my whole life. It was in my house, in my heart, and it was in the streets, and with it came a lot of compassion, fun, socialization, education and yes, respect. Things are very different now, aren’t they?
You were a member of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in your early 20’s and you performed with him at the Montreux Jazz Festival and appeared on a live recording. At that moment, you probably considered that to be your “big break.” How did this experience prepare you for your future high profile gigs, and what did you learn from the legendary drummer and band leader?
It was my first time being in a great band with a legendary artist like Art Blakey. Yes, it was a huge break. I got to meet so many young musicians that were destined to be major contributors to the art form, like James Williams (piano), Wynton (trumpet) and Branford (sax) Marsalis, Bill Pierce (sax). My brother Robin (trombone) was also in the band. It also made it possible to draw the attention of other great band leaders who I would eventually work with. It was after that tour with the Jazz Messengers that I decided to move to New York. When you’re traveling with someone like Art you learn so much on and off the stage. One of the most important things was understanding the difference between life and music being the expression of life. As I grew and hopefully evolved, the music would follow in turn. What you do off stage inevitably finds its way to the stage. Good and bad! I also began to learn that while you can practice the notes, you can’t practice the unknown. It’s the creativity, the unknown which makes it an art form. It’s hard to explain how you learn while touring with musicians like Art Blakey. It’s more like going to a very creative school. Class is always in session. It’s one of the beautiful things about jazz. You get to work with and learn from musicians twice your age and share the artistic moment. A cultural kind of learning as well as a technical one. Beautiful. Playing with Art certainly did help prepare me for my future career, and I wish I could succinctly put it into words, but the truth is I can’t. I think it’s more an cumulative effect. It’s not just one thing in particular. I guess the saying, “You gotta see a man to help you be a man.” It was deep. And it got deeper once I moved to the greatest school in the world, New York City, thanks to Art Blakey.
It was at Berklee College that Branford Marsalis knocked on my apartment door and said, “Hey man, Art Blakey is in town (Boston) at Lulu White’s, and he’s looking for a guitar player. Let’s go man!” I went.
I proudly taught at the Settlement Music School for 5 years at their Camden, NJ branch. You studied music at SMS as a child growing up in Philadelphia. What is a fo nd memory of SMS, and how did that help prepare you for college? Do you want to bring some recognition to a former teacher there?
I took violin lessons at Settlement from Lillian Cynburg. I played for seven years before I regretfully stopped playing at the age of 14. Absolutely one of my big musical regrets. Settlement taught me the value of practicing and preparing for the lesson next week. It helped me to focus on something tangible. That’s not easy at such a young age. Since my mother has a masters degree in music education, going to college was simply expected. I guess college was just more of the same at a much more intense level. You studied and prepared yourself for class. It was an extension of Settlement Music School in my mind. I took it all for granted, though I did not take it lightly. I practiced hard on violin and guitar. I should have never stopped playing violin. However I now see how fortunate I was in being able to even take lessons and to have parents that encouraged and expected me to continue to study and progress. In those days, the 70’s, public schools and institutions like Settlement made music a stablemate in our neighborhoods. Simply having children carrying instruments back and forth, playing recitals, proms and dances was extremely important. I had no idea at the time just how valuable it was. I grew up with music my whole life. It was in my house, in my heart, and it was in the streets, and with it came a lot of compassion, fun, socialization, education and yes, respect. Things are very different now, aren’t they?
You graduated with a BA in composition from Berklee College of Music in Boston. How important was attending and finishing music school, and was Berklee an intense experience for you?
Being at Berklee was a very, very interesting and intense period. I would imagine it’s pretty much the same for any young person leaving home and all that comes with a new sense of independence. College represents so many things. I knew right away that it was up to me to make it matter or not. I met so many people that would later become very important to me personally and to my career. All I wanted to do was practice and jam and learn, learn, learn. It was so encouraging to hear so many wonderful musicians from all over the world. I loved it. I also loved making my own decisions about everything. It wasn’t only about music. It was also a personal growth period. I was at ‘that’ age and I loved the adventure. It was at Berklee College that Branford Marsalis knocked on my apartment door and said, “Hey man Art Blakey is in town (Boston) at Lulu White’s and he’s looking for a guitar player. Let’s go man!” I went.
There certainly is no lack of talent in this world. What I am very curious about is how so many different people can sound the same. I do not believe it’s natural. I think it’s environmental. The rewards of sameness and fitting in. How can so many different individuals have the same tone, the same sound, the same musical phrases, the same story? How is that naturally possible?
What was your practice schedule like during your “discovery period”? Now? Do you have a regular warm up/maintenance routine?
My schedule was a simple one. Practice until I was too tired to continue. Now? I have periods when I practice very intensely just because it feels great to do so, but not like back then. Back then the discovery was completely brand new. So terribly exciting. These days there’s so many things one has to deal with as life affects your time and focus. However I love it when I get involved in projects that bring back some of that newness and excitement. It’s still a beautiful experience. It still makes me forget about time. It’s still an adventure, but as we know, there’s nothing like the first period of discovery. Or is it?
You are the author of The Creative Guitarist published by Hal Leonard. What advice do you have for young musicians trying to find their voice on their respective instrument?
Practice and play as much as you can with other musicians. Whenever possible play with people that are better than you. Keep in mind better is sometimes a relative term. You decide for yourself. There are some great schools to study at, although I believe that a very high percentage of your music education should be self taught in addition with some type of school. It’s natural to have your own sound and a unique musical personality when it comes from inside of YOU! Work intense and have fun. A lot of fun.
How would you define the current state of the guitar in jazz music?
I see more and more opportunity for guitar players to play so many different types of music. It’s probably the most popular instrument in the world other than the voice. I humbly suggest that if you have your own sound, especially in jazz, you might enjoy your musical adventure more. I’ve audited classes in various colleges in the US, Canada and Europe. There certainly is no lack of talent in this world. What I am very curious about is how so many different people can sound the same. I do not believe it’s natural. I think it’s environmental. The rewards of sameness and fitting in. How can so many different individuals have the same tone, the same sound, the same musical phrases, the same story? How is that naturally possible? In my opinion it’s an inherent danger of music education or any kind of education without creativity and compassion and imagination. It’s perhaps a symptom of telling you what to think instead of encouraging you to have your own thoughts. (Don’t get me started…)
Do you consider yourself a guitar collector? What excites you about your current custom model?
I’m not a collector. Which is not to say I don’t have too many guitars, I do. I acquired them over many years, and here and there I do use most of them. I really have three that are my main ones. What I love about having them custom made is that I learn about tone and how the smallest adjustment can make the instrument feel so comfortable. It’s definitely a luxury I’d hate to give up…lol. Having said that, the real guitarist in me likes to believe that I can make music even if the guitar was mad form plastic and rubber bands. I’m just sayin’, the sound might be from the guitar and the amp, but the heart and inspiration has to come from you! And it’s all about making the world feel something from your soul. Let’s not get it twisted.
The Dancing Sea
Do you listen to historic jazz guitar recordings often? What are a few that have a special place in your heart?
Anything with Wes Montgomery.
Do you have a current or future project that you would like to share with readers?
A new recording, which I think in time I might consider one of my personal favorites. Release date spring of 2017.
Most readers of Tempo Magazine are music educators and band leaders themselves. Do you have some words of wisdom or an idea you woul d like to share?
First I would like to say I’m so honored and proud to be a part of the family of music educators and band leaders. I’m sure you all have wisdom you could share with me. Yes, every blessing counts. In return I’d like to add to the circle by stating something I’ve learned about myself along the journey. Perhaps your students might benefit from it. “You don’t have to fit in, but you do have to be fit.”
We are grateful that Mr. Eubanks has granted an interview to our music education journal, focusing on the musician and guitarist. I am proud to say that this may be his first interview without being asked about Jay Leno!!! As you can imagine his late night celebrity career has been well documented and can be researched from other past interviews. The photos of Kevin Eubanks are credited to Raj Naik.
About the author:
NAfME member Thomas Amoriello is the Guitar Education Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Education Association and also serves on the NAfME Council for Guitar Education as the Eastern Division Representative. He teaches guitar for the Flemington Raritan School District and Hunterdon Academy of the Arts. He is the author of the children’s picture book A Journey to Guitarland with Maestro Armadillo, available from barnesandnoble.com.
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Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, December 23, 2016. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)