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SNL Band Members Ron Blake (Steinhardt ’10), Jared Scharff (Steinhardt ’01), and Tuffus Zimbabwe (Steinhardt ’09)

The Saturday Night Live band is one of the most talented musical ensembles on television today, and almost half of its members are NYU alumni or faculty.

By Kristine Jannuzzi (CAS ’98)

Members of the SNL band. Photo: Dana Edelson/NBC

“Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” That phrase from the iconic late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live is one of the most famous lines in American television history. But for the members of the SNL band, it’s the cue to kick off the show’s powerful opening theme song, whose wailing tenor sax riffs grab the viewers’ attention just as much as the words that precede it.

“Something magical happens at 11:29 every Saturday night when we’re on that stage,” says band member Ron Blake (Steinhardt ’10), who still feels like a giddy kid when he starts to play.

For a show that is so inextricably linked to the city in which it’s produced, it seems fitting that almost half of the SNL band’s 11 members are somehow affiliated with NYU (in addition to many cast members, past and present). The band’s Musical Director since 1995, tenor saxophonist Lenny Pickett, is a jazz faculty member at Steinhardt, and percussionist Valerie Naranjo is the Director of the NYU African Percussion Ensemble and on the adjunct faculty in Steinhardt’s Percussion Studies program. Additionally, three of the musicians are NYU graduates: baritone saxophonist and flautist Blake, guitarist Jared Scharff (Steinhardt ’01), and pianist Tuffus Zimbabwe (Steinhardt ’09).

Ron Blake (Steinhardt ’10). Photo: Jenn Breu

The band is essential in creating the energy and momentum that inspire the actors and audience alike. In addition to the music the ensemble plays live or has pre-recorded for various sketches, the musicians warm up the house for 25 minutes before the show starts and perform throughout all of the commercial breaks, when the home television audience hears only a few seconds of those songs.

Of the alumni in the group, Blake is the veteran, now in his seventh season with the band. A native of the Virgin Islands, Blake studied classical sax at Northwestern University as an undergraduate, but he says he always had his eyes on jazz. “I never studied jazz in school. I learned the old-fashioned way – in jam sessions and getting my butt kicked by musicians on stage.”

After several years of playing and teaching in Chicago and a two-year stint as an Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida, Blake moved to New York in 1992. He worked his way into the city’s jazz scene, playing with venerable musicians including Roy Hargrove, Art Farmer, Benny Golson, and Abbey Lincoln. In 2005, he was asked to try out for the bari sax position in the SNL band, and after a two-hour audition with Pickett, he got the job. It was Pickett who encouraged Blake to pursue graduate studies, and he ultimately enrolled in Steinhardt’s Jazz Studies program in 2007, earning his master’s in composition three years later.

When auditioning musicians to fill vacancies in the band, Pickett says he looks for strong sight readers “with a wonderful spontaneity in their playing. I’m looking for people who react, people who are creative and listen at the same time. We have limited rehearsal time – I have an hour and 40 minutes to rehearse two hours of music. And I change the music every week.”

Jared Scharff (Steinhardt ’01)

He says that Jared Scharff is an especially good sight reader, which is rare for a rock guitar player, according to Pickett. “When he plays, it’s like a take-no-prisoners kind of activity. He goes for broke every time.” Scharff, who is now in his fifth season at SNL, was recommended to audition for the band by the previous guitar player. He had been performing and recording music with several bands after he earned his BS in music education in 2001, but he says there’s no band in the world like the SNL band. “It's never the same. You need to learn how to be at the hottest level possible EVERY time you play a song – there's no buildup, you have to rule immediately and capture the audience.” He adds, “It's intense conditions, an insane amount of music thrown at you every week, ever-changing sketches and music, edits, re-writes, holding patterns, etc. It's a very interesting job and I’m thankful to be there playing with the best and kindest musicians I have ever known.”

Scharff was the youngest musician in the band until newcomer Tuffus Zimbabwe joined as keyboardist in September 2010. Zimbabwe had just turned 28 when he got offered the job, and he says that news was the best birthday present ever. He completed his master’s at Steinhardt in the spring of 2009, and he found that first year out of graduate school to be incredibly tough. The Boston native was still relatively new to the city, and there were very few jobs at that time. It was Dave Schroeder, Director of Steinhardt’s Jazz Studies program, who recommended Zimbabwe for the position with the SNL band. “When I got the phone call from Lenny Pickett, I was shocked. Who calls you for an audition, let alone the band director? Usually you have to go and seek it out yourself.”

Tuffus Zimbabwe (Steinhardt ’09). Photo: Joanna Petit-Frere

Zimbabwe was chosen from some 35 pianists who auditioned for the spot, and he still remembers the surreal feeling of playing his very first show. “I couldn’t believe I was really there on that stage,” he recalls. And although he’s now in the midst of his second season, he still finds the live performance on the show to be a bit nerve-wracking. “It’s high stakes – you have to be prepared and it has to be perfect. I try not to think about it too much,” he says, laughing.

Even the seasoned Pickett, who first joined the band as tenor saxophonist in 1985, admits that live television is always precarious. “You’re on your toes to make sure things don’t go wrong, and it’s amazing that things don’t go wrong all the time. But there are fantastic people working to make it turn out well.”

But for Pickett and the rest of the band, the challenges of live television also add to the excitement. “Performing is so exhilarating, and I have such an amazing band at the show. It’s an awesome group of musicians and it’s a huge honor for me to get to play with them.”

For more information about the SNL band, visit the NBC site. For more information about NYU's Jazz Studies program, visit the Steinhardt site.

 

Something magical happens at 11:29 every Saturday night when we’re on that stage.

– Ron Blake (Steinhardt '10)


 

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