Smitty: Ladies and gentlemen, I am so excited to welcome my next guest to JazzMonthly.com. She is an incredible musician, she has a wonderful new record out, and let me tell you, she pulled all the funk out of the trunk for this great new project. It is called Pearls. She is also music director for Norman Brown, one of my best friends in the business and I’m telling you, you’ve got to hear this new record because it is unbelievably fantastic. Please welcome Nu Groove recording artist, the incredible and amazing, my girl, Ms. Gail Jhonson. Gail, how you doin’?
Gail Jhonson (GJ): Doing great. Thank you. That was a wonderful introduction.
Smitty: Hey, you’re welcome. Hey, it is so fantastic to see you out there doing your thing, and what a great follow-up to Let the Music Play.
GJ: Yeah, I’m telling you, it’s been two years. I’ve been really working this record and trying to get it done, and just with a little bit of patience and a whole lot of time, and it’s here.
Smitty: Yes indeed, and you’ve got some “Lights Out” players on here. My boy Nelson Braxton and Marion Meadows.
Smitty: And my boy Norman Brown. I mean, this record is bumpin’ hard! I love all the tracks on here and you really showcased your talent on this great record.
GJ: Wow, that’s good coming from you, Smitty. I know you listen to a lot of music and interview a lot of people, and so that’s wonderful. Thank you. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.
Smitty: Yes indeed, you’re welcome and thank you. You come from a wonderful music part of the world, Philadelphia, and you got started at a very early age. What, were you around ten years old when you started playing?
GJ: Yeah. Yeah, my girlfriend, she was late coming home from school one day and I was sitting out waiting on the steps wondering where in the world she was, and finally she came home and I went running down the street to go meet her and I was like “Where were you?” She was “Oh, taking piano lessons.” I’m like “Piano lessons?” And she was like “Yeah.” And I said “Damn, I wanna take piano lessons” and I ran all the way back home and out of breath, telling my mom, “Look, I gotta have some piano lessons.” I don’t know why I was so adamant about it, but (both laugh) I was just so intrigued. I always have been. My mom bought me a little piano when I was about two or three years old, but anytime there was a keyboard around, I’d tinker with it.
Smitty: Yeah, well, we’re glad you were excited about it back then.
Smitty: But was it hard to stay with the piano lessons or were you just excited about it? Was it something you looked forward to?
GJ: No, it wasn’t hard. It was a little bit of a hardship on my family. My mom, she scraped to keep the piano lessons going because I was going through the books so fast, every time she turned around she had to buy another book.
Smitty: (Laughs.) It’s kinda like the kids going through the computer games today, huh?
GJ: Yeah. So eventually we couldn’t keep up the rental payments on that and so then I just practiced at school, and then I got discouraged because the teachers, they didn’t want me to play anything other than the classical lessons that they gave and I would hear stuff on the radio and I would come back to the piano and then pick out the melodies and try to figure out what they were doing, and she would go “No, no, no, no, no, no,” so that kind of got discouraging and I quit piano lessons for a whole year and I was just—I felt so sad and so lost.
But then I went to the Uptown Theatre in North Philadelphia and saw Stevie Wonder playing a Farfisa keyboard and I said “Oh, it’s on. I gotta have one.” Yeah, that’s one of the organs that you hear a lot on like Sly & the Family Stone records. That was a real popular sound, kind of a rock organ sound and Stevie Wonder was playing that keyboard and I said “Oh yeah, I gotta have one,” so he sparked my love back up and got me going again, had to get the keyboard. I didn’t get the Farfisa, but my family, we scraped up something. We got a Yamaha.
Smitty: Yeah, well, Stevie Wonder has sparked a lot of people to start playing or to keep playing. (Laughs.) You went on to Berklee, right?
GJ: Yeah, I was working with local bands in Philly and I finally went on, after graduating from high school, went straight on to Berklee and I just fell in love with it. It was a really fantastic experience. Of course, we were all broke, but we didn’t care. We were just playing morning, noon and night, and trying to learn as much as we could and, of course, trying to pay to stay in there, so it’s quite expensive to go to school there and now I just don’t know how the kids are gonna make it, but somehow they do. Yeah, definitely on to Berklee and I learned about all the hip jazz guys, you know? Teddy Wilson and John Coltrane, and I knew about Mongo Santamaria and Ramsey Lewis a little bit, but I didn’t know about all the jazz greats until I got to school.
Smitty: Yeah, and then you landed a huge gig with Morris Day. Wow!
GJ: Yes, yes, that was really something. I had to work and do some smalltime tours, East Coast things, with a lady named Brandi Wells—she is a vocalist out of Philadelphia—and a fellow named Eugene Wilde. He did “Gotta Get You Home With Me Tonight.”
GJ: So those were really nice East Coast tours that kinda really broke me in for getting on the professional side, but once I landed that gig with Morris, then I came to L.A. It was really dynamic then.
Smitty: Yeah, I can imagine. Talk about the Philadelphia scene when you were coming up as far as music. What was it like?
GJ: Oh, everybody played. Everybody played music. You couldn’t walk down a block anywhere without a band somewhere practicing in the basement. See, back in Philly we have basements and you can just set up all of your gear and you get plugged up and practice. There were lots of bands and we all had buses, we all would customize our buses, and we would take old school buses and convert them into music caravans, you know? (Laughs.)
GJ: Yeah, with our colors and put our name on the side of the bus, and we would do gigs off and on, sometimes every weekend instead of all the band members having to drive. Well, we couldn’t drive because I was 14 when I was gigging, so my uncle Bill Reeves, he was our escort, and we were all under age, so we couldn’t drive so we’d all pile into the bus and he would drive us to the gig and we would unload our gear and set up and start playing and sit in the corner somewhere. (Both laugh.)
Smitty: But that was a beautiful time, though. I’ve heard so much about the Philadelphia scene and how beautiful it was back then.
GJ: Yeah, on the weekends, the guys that played percussion—of course, I played percussion too. I would go out with them sometimes and I played my flute, because I played flute for six years, and the guys, well, they would play the kunga drums in Fairmont Park. We’d go out there and they would be drinking wine and stuff. I wouldn’t do that, but… (Both laugh.)
Smitty: Yeah. Because that was a cool time.