- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2000

The twitter of a guitar riff grows in volume as it repeats. A saxophone blows decorative swirls around it, and a stand-up bass begins to pluck in contrapuntal rhythm. Drums crash inside whatever holes of syncopation remain.
By the end of this song, called "Quiet Days," the fingers of Kevin Eubanks are fretting at the speed of hummingbird wings.
"It's hot up here," the guitarist says, sweating, before he launches into another selection. Indeed, it is hot in more than one way.
This is the first of many Sunday nights that Mr. Eubanks and his jazz quartet plan to spend onstage at the Lounge at the Beach. The leader of "The Tonight Show" band has taken up residency at the Hermosa Beach, Calif., nightclub formerly known as Igor's.
"It's my first weekly gig at the same place since college," Mr. Eubanks, 42, says backstage after his set. "I'm really looking forward to it."
Known by jazz aficionados for his uniquely seamless fusing of jazz with blues and rock, Mr. Eubanks has performed professionally for more than 20 years. He has 11 critically acclaimed albums in his canon and five more in the can.
But more than 5 million weeknight TV viewers know this serious musician only as Jay Leno's sidekick, the guy with the big laugh and the small dance card. Nearly every night, the guitarist gets needled by his famous boss about his purported bad luck with the ladies.
"It's typical for people on the street to ask me why I can't get a date," says Mr. Eubanks, who stands 5 feet 6 inches. "Women bring their daughters to me, and they offer to marry me. But I'm still as single as a person can be."
Playing jazz for intimate crowds may not redeem his national image as a loser at love. But it will help keep Mr. Eubanks' jazz reflexes sharp. Television limits him to selecting from among 200 precisely timed arrangements of pop, rock and funk standards. But at the Lounge at the Beach, he's playing only jazz originals, most of them new and structured to allow complex improvisation from saxophonist Doug Webb, bassist Richard Reid and drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith.
"I don't have any conflict of interest between my two jobs," Mr. Eubanks says. "I know what I have to do on 'The Tonight Show,' and I love doing it. But I will say that it's wonderful to also have a place in town to play where I can keep my hands feeling good and the music flowing."
The workout is analogous to the one Mr. Leno simultaneously gives himself next door at the Comedy and Magic Club. (The venues are both owned by Leno pal Mike Lacey and share backstage quarters.) Mr. Eubanks' pregnant-chinned boss has been testing jokes for his "Tonight Show" monologues almost every Sunday evening here since replacing Johnny Carson in 1992.
It was Mr. Leno who recommended the Lounge at the Beach to Mr. Eubanks.
"He told me the people that come down are really open and want to enjoy themselves," Mr. Eubanks says. "I checked it out a couple of times and really liked the room. Plus, it's great to hang with Jay outside of the show. We watch movies and go out to eat and stuff, so we're already comfortable with each other. But touching base here makes us that much more comfortable."
Mr. Eubanks grew up in Philadelphia, part of a musical family that also included piano ace Ray Bryant, his uncle. Mr. Eubanks' mom, Vera, taught music in public school and encouraged Kevin to begin violin lessons at age 7.
His interest shifted to piano and later trumpet. But after a memorable James Brown concert at age 12, Mr. Eubanks realized he was born to strum guitar, eventually gleaning inspiration from the recordings of six-string great Wes Montgomery.
At 19, Mr. Eubanks graduated from Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, where he befriended saxophonist Branford Marsalis. It was Mr. Marsalis who talked a shy Mr. Eubanks into auditioning for a well-known band called the Jazz Messengers, led by Art Blakey. The gig earned Mr. Eubanks a record deal with Elektra and the reputation as a top jazz sideman. It led to work with other jazz notables such as Roy Haynes, Slide Hampton, Sam Rivers, Gary Thomas and Mike Gibbs.
Mr. Marsalis provided an even bigger break by asking Mr. Eubanks aboard "The Tonight Show" in late 1992 as his guitarist. Although some in the jazz community cried sellout, Mr. Eubanks had no qualms about accepting the gig.
"I am a member of the jazz community myself, so I get a vote as to whether it's a sellout or not," he says, slowly forming a smile. "And my vote is that I do what I feel like doing. I did my tour of duty for 15 years before this."
Mr. Eubanks would say only that he has done very well financially since joining "The Tonight Show." Named by Mr. Leno as Mr. Marsalis' successor in 1995, he adds that he can see his reign extending indefinitely.
As for his residency at the Lounge at the Beach, it will continue as long as there's an audience.
"Hopefully, all the things will connect, and it will continue to be a good thing."

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