Monday, May 31, 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Where Have You Gone, Doc Severinsen?

Take a moment to read this profile of now-former Tonight Show bandleader/guitarist Kevin Eubanks. Coupled with clips like this one, there's a compelling argument waiting to be made that the stability of the Tonight Show gig took a vital player out of the jazz game for almost two decades.

Let's talk jazz after the jump.

Eubanks' legacy with late night television might best be viewed as a transitional one. The only bandleader with a similar tenure of service is Paul Shaffer, Letterman's bandleader/sidekick, whose background is almost entirely in rock, R&B, and contemporary pop (Shaffer spent a number of years at Saturday Night Live, helping orchestrate Aykroyd and Belushi's Blues Brothers band; it's enough to forgive his foray into disco.) With the passing of the Tonight Show bandstand (to the musical director of American Idol, no less), we have, for the first time since the format premiered, an essentially jazz-free late night landscape on broadcast television.

At the time Doc Severinsen took over the bandstand (in 1967), jazz had become what rock music is today: the former music of rebellion, now taken for granted as a default setting for background music.

This latest transition lends a little credence to the argument that jazz, as a popular idiom, is largely dead; the genre once described as "America's classical music" sells only modest amounts and has been victim of the same sort of neutering academic force that rendered the once-shocking "Rite of Spring" something palatable and, dare I say it, safe. Universities have major programs for a form that was born in brothels and in back rooms and whose greatest practitioners were also the most willing to abandon tradition- would Miles Davis have cut On the Corner if he had been playing academic jazz?

Last December, Sean Colter Walls made the argument in Newsweek that the form was commercially dead but still creatively vibrant. There's probably some truth to that- groups like The Bad Plus and anything involving Brad Mehldau have strong ties to tradition while infusing the form with a restless energy that breaks it out of the purgatory of cocktail hours and lecture halls.

If jazz returns to something closer to its grittier roots, does it supplant punk as the one true outsider format? What does this say about the future of rock?

Meanwhile, Doc still plays with Pops groups and on the nostalgia circuit. The last of the "three amigos" of The Tonight Show's glory days, he soldiers on. We'll have to wait and see what the road holds for Eubanks.

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