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Kevin Eubanks - Interview

Contributors: Ken Weiss
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Kevin Eubanks - Interview

Kevin Eubanks by Ken Weiss

Jazz Inside: Kevin, at this time you are arguably the most popular, most likeable, most well-known living jazz musician in the country for your work on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. By nature, you’re a reserved and humble person. Has your great acclaim been comfortable for you?


KE: Yeah, I think that I don’t notice it in my day to day life. My day to day life is probably just average to most people really except when I’m working. I get up and do yoga, try to exercise, cook, go online and answer my emails and talk to friends. Pretty much the same thing except when I go to work, then it might be different - but obviously similar to lots of other musicians. It’s funny, I don’t see all the other stuff so much, and I just kind of have a normal day mostly.


JI: Is it difficult to have a normal day in Hollywood with being on TV every night and people recognizing you? There must be a lot of people looking for you to do things.


KE: Well yeah, and that becomes normal and to me all of that’s work.  After a while going to an industry event, a red carpet event or doing TV shows, becomes normal. All that stuff is just part of the job. I show up at events and do TV shows - different TV shows obviously. I’m not doing the show with Jay anymore. I do daytime TV shows and Hollywood kind of gossip talk shows. When I go around the country and do gigs, we do daytime TV to promote the gigs. But that’s just part of my job now, that’s part of staying in a TV community. I’m learning about daytime TV and I hope television isn’t done with me just yet because I’m not on late-night anymore. I like television and I’m just as comfortable in a TV studio as I am on a stage playing a show.


JI: You did the Muppets Show too right?


KE: Yeah.


JI: Sesame Street hasn’t called yet?


KE: No, I’m waiting; I’ve been waiting for the Sesame Street call.


JI: Many people who don’t listen to jazz say they don’t understand it - it’s too hip, it’s too cerebral. On TV, you were able to break through to the general public with your smile and of course your great playing. What else did you do or could be done to reach the general public?


KE: I just think by nature I’m more an inclusive person than an exclusive person and then that hopefully comes out in my music and my attitude towards people - when I meet people that, by and large, know me from television and they have no idea that I have CDs or that I’ve had a career in music. They just think you’re the person on television. So I don’t take an attitude where I’m too hip or I’m too cerebral or anything like that. I just try and take an attitude where including is more progressive than excluding. I think in general jazz as a community has a great deal of work to do with having that same attitude. The reputation that jazz has of being this exclusive hip, too hip for the room, kind of relishing in our own idealistic, cerebral music and all that, I think is hurting the music and the musicians. We’re romanticizing things from another decade when those things helped to populate the music and now it helps to depopulate the music. And I think by and large that attitude is making jazz into a music of survival instead of a music of prosperous longevity.


JI: What are your feelings about the way that jazz is presented to the public?


KE: I think it mostly preaches to the choir. You have a finite audience, a finite response to the music, you have the people that react to it over the years, from the critics to the fans - and it doesn’t grow. You can’t show me any corporation or any business that can exist with that kind of reputation. So jazz to me is – certainly because of the greatness of the music, and the musicians and the fans and the people that, like yourself, love the music – shows how resilient it is.

But that’s just not enough. We have a disconnect between what we do and how people perceive what we do. We don’t have that thing in between that every successful business has to have, and that successful music has to have. We don’t have any kind of marketing. We don’t have anything that makes the music attractive to people, inviting to people. We think that because we play the way we do that that alone should do it. You have to kind of let people appreciate the things that they’re used to appreciating. They want to see people looking their best, looking prosperous, having something to say, being exciting, having controversy about it. Nowadays they want to see some kind of reality going on, they want to be included. That’s why reality TV is such a big thing. They feel like they’re a part of that. They feel like they can identify with all of it, and it becomes good TV. The problem is we feel that that’s a demeaning thing to our music - to try and present it that way. All it does is make people walk by you without noticing you. The fact that you don’t receive your Grammy on television, you receive it as a blurb running across the bottom of the screen – and it’s moving fast too – and this is this high award to everybody else who gets their Grammy on national television. It’s not just a night on TV either. It’s the month leading up to it when the Grammy nominations are announced. You get all that publicity going into the Grammy’s and you finally get your award on TV. Even if you’re in the audience, they put the camera on you in the audience. You go up and you get this national moment for everybody to recognize that this person has this acclaim and everybody in the country is watching that night. It’s going to be in print tomorrow, that’s a boost to your career and genre of music, that’s a boost to pop music. For Taylor Swift it’s a boost to country/pop music and whatever. And where are we? Where’s jazz music to receive theirs? How are you going to help your music, help your industry, help your lifestyle, help your kids, and pay college tuition? How are you going to grow, have your community grow, if you don’t take part in celebrations like this? And then you can go back and say, “Well we’re too hip,” or, “We’re too this,” or “We’re too that,” and it’s a different time. That may have been great. I actually think the musicians from the past eras look better than the musicians today. They wore suits, they wore this, that and the other. I don’t agree that you have to wear a suit and that somehow has something to do with the music you’re playing, the concept is what I’m talking about - the concept that you take pride in looking your best at what you do. If you go to work you dress a certain way. When you go to church, you dress a certain way. You don’t just have an executive of some company take a picture for their company in a T-shirt. This is a picture that’s going to be presented to all the other CEOs and at all the other conferences and they want to have a look that represents what they’re doing. That’s responsibility. And jazz musicians in general – I’m not speaking about individuals- this is a generality – that as an attitude we don’t share that love of, “What can we do to market? What can we do to bring attention to ourselves? Then once we get their attention, we can do what we want to do.” I think by embracing all of that, that the music itself will start to have a different attitude as well. So I think basically we hurt ourselves with just our attitude towards the rest of the world. If you want to sell something to someone – and if any jazz musician says they're not interested in selling, then you have no complaints about the state of living that music is in or your home or everything you have to do to sustain your life on a day to day basis. You know, a doctor needs clients, a car salesman needs clients, and a jazz musician needs clients. Why do we pretend like we’re not selling anything or that we’re not entertaining people? If you’re music is not entertaining on some level, it doesn’t mean its void of quality and substance. But if people are not entertained by it, that means if they don’t enjoy watching and listening to it, and take something home with them … If it’s not entertaining, it has to be a necessity. And nobody wants to go to where it’s just necessity. They’re only going because they have to go. We kind of push people to that point. It’s not good for the music or the musicians.


JI: You had touched on the fact that there are many musicians - especially in the avant-garde or experimental music - that feel that if they pose for a photo or if they do an interview that it’s selling out, or that they’re promoting themselves, and it goes against the music and it really does hold them back from getting their message out there. I’ve had musicians decline to do an interview because they didn’t want the publicity.”


KE: Fine. Good. Then I don’t want to hear anyone complaining about the state of jazz. I would love to do an interview sitting across from one of these musicians, and I’d love to interview them and see where they’re coming from and say, “Well if you say that, I contend that you’re hurting jazz, you’re hurting yourself, you’re hurting your family, you’re hurting everything involved with this thing you’re growing. I don’t think that taking a picture, wearing makeup, showing up dressed in a certain way for the image you’re trying to project, does anything to the music except invite people more to take part in it - to at least notice it. I don’t see how that stops me from practicing - because I have powder on. But it takes a better photograph. You don’t want to see somebody like the news anchor coming on in a sweat suit. It just doesn’t connect with the job that they’re doing.

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