If you’re at home, channel surfing after midnight, you just may see Chick Corea…or Herbie Hancock…or Christian Scott. Not on PBS or Ovation – but on network television. And you have The Roots to thank for it.
NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is changing the look of late night talk shows, and the fresh-faced Fallon is just one of the differences. The tradition of the late night band has been elevated under the direction of Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson and The Roots, as the house band for Late Night. The show has brilliantly simulated the jam session, bringing in various notable musicians to sit in and play with the band, showcasing the interplay and spontaneity of a jam session at an after-hours jazz hang. The Roots crew has brought not only their top-notch musicianship to NBC, but their ethics, too. “I told him [Fallon] that there has to be the real trade off,” says Thompson. Exposing musicians to a broader medium is a potential game-changer for jazz musicians who aren’t normally afforded (though completely deserving of) such a platform. Following Fallon’s opening monologue, he reintroduces The Roots and their special guest. Once settled behind his desk, he promotes the guest, showcasing their album artwork or CD, plugs any upcoming shows they may have, and chats them up a bit — a major opportunity for any artist. As a musician first, Thompson understands the importance of this kind of recognition. “We really wanted to have effective ways to, you know, to really maximize on that. That one song in the last slot of the show [from the band actually slotted to perform on the show] could equal [the] spotlight at the top of the show plus all the commercials in between.”
Most recently, The Roots welcomed jazz pianist Robert Glasper to sit in. Described as his “musical comrades”, Glasper tips his hat to the band for their stance. “I’ve known Ahmir for a long time; it’s great to see them being exposed on such a major level. And for them also to be able to expose me and other musicians who wouldn’t get that kind of recognition on a normal basis is great and inspiring. I don’t know of any other circumstance that a jazz pianist or any other musician in general that plays jazz would get that kind of spotlight on a regular basis and they’re making that happen.”
While this is not an entirely new idea (saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ powerhouse quartet was the band for The Tonight Show from 1992 – 1995, with Marsalis as MD, showcasing a plethora of jazz legends), the Roots are certainly bringing the brand power of “the band” to pop culture in an unprecedented way, and it seems to be rubbing off. For example, after my interview, they were rushing off to play for President Obama at a mid-town gala. Pop, and even hip-hop artists are opting for the organic sonance of the live band instead of playing to track. Artists like Ludacris, Lupe Fiasco, Nas and Lil Wayne are employing musicians with diverse musical backgrounds to deliver their songs.
Jazz musicians could not be happier, I’m sure. “For the fist time in a long time I was actually nervous,” says Glasper through a hearty laugh, “realizing half way through my solo piano part that I was playing for millions of people which I’ve never done before on my own…promoting myself. I’m playing my song by myself for millions of people. So, the fact that [The Roots are] still breaking ground in the music industry and for the good of the musician, it was an amazing situation for me to be in.”