Former “Tonight Show” bandleader Kevin Eubanks turned up on his old show Monday night for a touching reunion with Jay Leno.
It was great to see Kevin, who left the show in 2010 after 15 years. He was a likable presence on the “Leno” show — a cheerful sidekick who was always game to participate in comedy bits on the show, no matter how undignified.
And some of those great bits were showcased at the very beginning of Monday’s “Tonight Show” in a “cold open” segment in which Leno encountered his old buddy backstage.
When their eyes met, Barbra Streisand’s voice was heard singing “The Way We Were” as Jay apparently made a sentimental journey in his mind to revisit his happiest moments with Kevin. The brief bit ended on a comedic note, with both men embarrassed by their sentimentality.
As the evening’s musical guest, Kevin gave a performance from the “Tonight Show” musical stage. But producers also carved out enough time for Eubanks, 55, to sit down with Jay for an interview.
In their interview segment, it became clear that Leno and Eubanks are genuine friends. As fellow guests Dennis Rodman and Kevin Bacon looked on, Eubanks thanked Jay for the many birthday presents Leno apparently sends him almost every year — usually some sort of collectible item related to the late Jimi Hendrix, who Eubanks, a guitarist, idolizes.
Eubanks even thanked Jay for staying in touch with Eubanks’ parents in Philadelphia. Jay even called them on their 58th wedding anniversary, Kevin reported. (Eubanks also noted that both he and Bacon are native Philadelphians.)
We have the interview segment in this next clip, which starts with a replay of the show’s opening bit.
Eubanks, a jazz guitarist, performed an instrumental number with his five-piece band. Among them: Drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, who was a charismatic presence on “The Tonight Show” as the drummer in Eubanks’ “Tonight Show” band.
In his 15 years on “Tonight,” Eubanks made an incalculable contribution to the show’s success. His promotion to bandleader in 1995 wrought a sudden and much-needed change in the temperament of the show following the nearly three-year tenure of bandleader Branford Marsalis. Marsalis, a competent musician from the famous Marsalis family, was nevertheless a dour presence on “Tonight” who bridled at participating in the show’s silly comedy bits, or engaging in light-hearted banter with Jay.
Eubanks agreed to do both and the overall “mood” of the show improved markedly. When Eubanks left in 2010, we felt his exit was never fully explained. Our guess is that Kevin had had enough of nightly work on TV and wished to return to the touring life of a jazz performer and composer. And that’s what he has done these last few years.
Interestingly, Branford Marsalis himself turned up as musical guest on “Tonight” just earlier this month — on Feb. 1.