By Sheryl Aronson
At the age of ten years old, Gail Jhonson knew she wanted to be a serious musician when she first began playing the piano. Four years later, she and her cousins were gigging around the clubs in Philadelphia as the R&B Group, Natural Experience.
“Those were my formative years where I learned I could play, make some money and have a career. I thought, ‘Wow, I could have a career and be a success at music.”
This composer, arranger, producer, keyboardist and vocalist has carved out an extremely successful career fronting her own groups and touring the world with such notable musicians like Norman Brown, Patti Austin, Jeff Lorber, Marion Meadows and many more.
I sat down with Gail Jhonson after her appearance on Smooth Saturdays with Aysha on LA Talk Radio back in February, and we talked about her illustrious career, as well as the upcoming fund raising concert for the organization Hands4Hope. Gail, along with Lydia Floyd were co-founders for Hands4Hope which provide free afterschool programs for youth and single parent families On Saturday, March 4th, Gail Jhonson would be the Musical Director for the 17th Annual Starlight Serenade Benefit Concert.
The Hollywood 360: Gail, talk about your involvement with Hands4Hope.
Gail Jhonson: Seventeen years ago, me and the CEO, Lydia Floyd started Hands4Hope in my living room after we met at the First Baptist Church of North Hollywood. We both recognized we’re both professional women and wanted to do something for the community. She had a passion for kids and I had a passion for music. So we came up with Hands4Hope. We worked on the logo and all the different facets that would take place.
The Hollywood 360: So what does the organization do?
Gail Jhonson: We have all kinds of events to raise money to keep the organization going. I have since gone off and been on tour with Norman Brown, Jazz in Pink, Phil Perry, Jonathan Butler and many more musicians. I’ve been enjoying my life as a performer, but Lydia has been back here holding down the fort doing Hands4Hope. She has an office here at the church and works with 50 children and single parent families. We have all kinds of events. We have a Hope Walk, we have a concert called The Starlight Serenade, that will be March 4th at the Harmony Gold Theater. We have Single Parent Forums.
The Hollywood 360: Why do you think it is so important for kids to have music in their life?
Gail Jhonson: Music is healing. It’s a way to focus, it’s a way to get inward, it’s a way to calm yourself down. We can take the music and draw the kids in and show them how stay with it. Music is a way for kids to focus and have fellowship with other musicians. You are talking a musical language with others, you are offering something back to the world. The greatest gift is music.
The Hollywood 360: Talk about the Starlight Serenade Concert coming up.
Gail Jhonson: I am the Musical Director for the show. I started off by being the Musical Director then the bassist Dwayne Smitty Smith took over. He was really hot at that time playing with Boney James and Michael Franks, etc. The Concert was a way to draw all the Smooth Jazz Artists in like Gerald Albright, Norman Brown, Everett Harp, etc. in to dedicate their talent and help raise money for Hands4Hope.
Now, the past three years, I have been doing it actively again. This year I was able to secure, the Grammy Nominated, Paul Jackson, Jr., the great Sinbad, (whose been a closet musician for years) he wants to do a little something. We don’t know what yet. We have the great Bobby Rodriguez on trumpet, he is going to bring his Latin Jazz. Of course we have Miss Smooth Jazz, Jessy J playing tenor sax. She had played with Jazz in Pink some time ago. I am on keys alongside Wayne Linsey from American Idol. We have Kevin Chokan, guitarist from Chaka Kahn is also going to play. We have Tony Moore on drums from the LA Collective. Tony Saunders is on bass, he’s up from the Bay Area. We have Dr. Zarif on percussion. He’s actually a Medical Doctor. We have a horn section with Rick Parma on sax and Geoff Alpert on trombone. We have a full lineup.
The Hollywood 360: The kids perform as well.
Gail Johnson: Yes the kids perform, they are going to do a singing number, they have a rock band, and they are going to do a dance number. This is our way for them to exemplify… you can go on and become a great musician. But to do music in school doesn’t mean you have to go on a be a musician. You can say I played clarinet, I used to play flute, the viola. It’s a way for people to communicate and a way for people to address their spirit. Sometimes things are going on at home that are bothering you, but when you come to rehearsal for band practice, that stuff goes way out of your head. You don’t have time to think about your problems as an adolescent especially in these times. Music in the schools are so important. We need to keep Music in – the kids need instruments, they need mentors and teachers.
I try to be an inspiration to young girls, because I want them to know, ‘Hey if you want to get on the drums, then get on the drums. Try picking up the bass.’ I knew it was okay to play the piano as a girl, but I never thought about picking up the bass. I tell them, ‘Get on the trumpet and the trombone.’
The Hollywood 360: What are you doing musically right now.
Gail Jhonson: I’m in my studio and producing Norman Browns’ daughters. Their group is called Brown Sugar. It’s three vocalists and they all play keyboards and bass. They are going to do an EP and that should come out this summer. I am also producing another young saxophonist named Jay White. I am producing 4 or 5 tracs for him. I am going back on the road with Norman Brown. We are going to Mozambique in March for a jazz festival. Jazz in Pink has some dates going on later this year… we’re going to Hampton, VA, and Nashville. We’re going back to Texas for the Black Academy of Arts and Letters to do their festival. Jazz in Pink is ready to do a new record, “Jazz in Pink”, Second Collection.
The Hollywood 360: Let’s back up a little and talk about the beginnings of your career.
Gail Jhonson: I fell in love with the keyboards when I was 10. At 14 I had my first gig. Uncle Bill would take us to the clubs. We would sit in the corner and wait, then play our gig, then pack up the van and off we go. Back then we were playing R&B music like Sly and The Family Stone, Al Green. The name of the band was Natural Experience. Those were my formative years where I learned I could play, make some money and have a career. I thought, Wow, I could have a career and be a success at music. I didn’t know yet that you had to be really good. Now, I know you have to be consistent and just do it. I’m the shining of example of tenacity. I’ve been able to make a living, raise my children, and travel the world.
The Hollywood 360: You went to Berklee College of Music. Talk about your experiences in Boston.
Gail Jhonson: I loved going to Berklee. I remember Orville Wright as one of my teachers. My mentor was Mr. James Williams who is no longer with us. He played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Fabulous piano player.
The Hollywood 360: Back in the late 1970’s, how was your experience being a female playing jazz? Not many women were doing that.
Gail Jhonson: It was a problem. Still is. You pick up any magazine, you will see at any given jazz festival, seven or eight guys and maybe one woman. And if she is on there, she’s probably singing. We look back and see Ella, Sarah, and Carmen McCrae, all of them were fine piano players, but that part of them was suppressed. If you wanted to make it, you needed to sing. Now we have wonderful female musicians that are being known. Beyonce has a group of all female musicians and we have Terri Lyne Carrington, Grammy Award winner and drummer, and my hero, keyboardist, Patrice Rushen, and you have saxophonist, Tia Fuller…all these women are doing great. I am so proud of being a part of what they are doing. To me, it’s important to get women up on the stage. It’s still a struggle for us. The promoters of the world have to realize we’re here to make money too, and not just here to look cute. LOL. We have bills to pay. We are serious musicians.
The Hollywood 360: Tell us about Jazz in Pink. Why did you start that group?
Gail Jhonson: I was on a Smooth Jazz Cruise playing with Norman Brown. I went to one of the shows and saw Althea Rene, flutist. I asked myself, ‘Where have you been?’ She was the flutist for the group Straight Ahead. She wanted to do more than just playing straight ahead jazz. So I invited her to lunch to talk about how we might collaborate and help each other’s career. That was 2008. In 2018, we will be celebrating 10 years of “Jazz In Pink” being together.
The musicians in “Jazz in Pink” are spread all over the country. People ask me how do you keep the group together and prepare for gigs? We have air rehearsals because we can’t all afford to fly to be in one spot to practice. I write the music charts.
The Hollywood 360: What kind of music do you play?
Gail Jhonson: We play more than just jazz. We play World Music, Funk, Gospel and Jazz. It’s a fusion of all these different styles. My intention was to make us a package like the Sax Pac. I created “Jazz In Pink” as we already have the package and just hire the package. Everyday it’s my job to promote this band, call venues or post something on Facebook.
The Hollywood 360: What has been your philosophy for this band?
Gail Jhnson: “Jazz in Pink” come to the stage with energy and fire, beauty and grace. All the musicians are really serious about what they do, but yet able to have fun on stage, and show your beauty and your talent. Our mission statement is we hit the stage with beauty, grace, and passion.
The Hollywood 360: Where has “Jazz in Pink” played?
Gail Jhonson: We did the CanCun Jazz Festival, we did the Aruba Jazz Festival, we’ve been Hawaii, and we’ve been to Cameron as an invitation from the Minister of Tourism. We performed for a lot of dignitaries. We have been to the World Festival in Kentucky, we played the Berks Jazz Festival and the Sea Breeze Jazz Festival.
The Hollywood 360: You’ve also made a CD with “Jazz in Pink.”
Gail Jhonson: Yes. I produced the record and it’s called First Collection. I’ve had a lot women who wanted to play on it. We had Cat Dison on guitar, Robin Roundtree on the bass, on a trac called “Hot.” Althea Rene on flute, Karen Briggs and I co-wrote a song called, “Straight to My Heart” and dedicated it to my son who had passed away. Mariea Antoinette, who does Spoken Word so we did a trac called “Queen” for her. Pamela Williams on sax, who has 10 albums of her own. That came out in 2014.
The Hollywood 360: What else can you tell us about your career?
Gail Jhonson: I’m being honored this year. I’ve been honored by The Black Women in Jazz for piano and composition. This time I am going to be honored by African Focus Group and it’s called the Goodwill Awards. They honor people who are doing civic things for the community and they wanted to do a cultural bridge back to Africa. They got different host families from different countries in Africa and my country is Nigeria from the Yuraba Tribe. There will be a ceremony on April 8th at the Sheraton Hotel at LAX.
Remember the Hands4Hope Serenade Concert is on March 4th at the Harmony Gold Theater. I hope to see everyone there.
To find out more about Gail Jhonson go to: http://gailjhonson.com/
All Photos by Sheryl Aronson/ The Hollywood 360 (unless otherwise noted)