Gail Jhonson | HerStory

Gail Jhonson - Her Story

Gail Jhonson | HerStory
By Peggy Oliver

Growing up in one of music’s historical hotbeds, Gail Jhonson was one of many hard working dreamers who truly loved to play the piano. She was thoroughly awed in how nearly everyone in Philadelphia seemed to take music seriously; even the one who were strictly ‘basement’ musicians. But between her teachers and funk heroes she heard on the radio like Sly (Stone) and Stevie (Wonder), there were constant conflicts of interest. While the teachers demanded training her in the classical genre, Jhonson highly desired otherwise. In those frustrations, she took a year off from achieving her goals. Thankfully, Jhonston’s passion was rejuvanated after witnessing an electrifying concert from Stevie in her hometown’s Uptown Theatre. She was especially drawn to his Farfisa keyboard; an organ which reminded her of Sly’s rock flavored organ breaks on many of his hits including “Dance to the Music.” Despite persisting on obtaining a Farfisa, she settled for another keyboard. Jhonson found plenty of work during her high school years (actually as flute player); proving herself worthy of a trip to the top-notch Berklee School of Music.

As she experienced the Berklee life, she slowly changed her direction toward jazz; admiring legends like Ramsey Lewis and John Coltrane. In the meantime to keep paying the bills, Jhonson worked on a smaller scale; mostly in the R&B and soul world. But the seal breaker for Jhonson was an audition for the vivacious entertainer Morris Day. Needless to say after ‘getting the job,’ the doors opened towards her own platform, including a long term musical directing gig for master smooth jazz guitarist, Norman Brown. Her impressive resume crosses over various urban genres performing with Bobby Womack and Sheila E.; and touring with Brown on the Summer Storm Series with Patti Austin, Marion Meadows and many more. As a musical educator; Jhonson produced several instructional books and CD’s including Funk Keyboards, heading full circle to her days of soaking in the dynamics of the Sly’s and Stevie’s of the world.

Known affectionately as ‘The First Lady of Smooth Jazz’, Jhonson dubbed her nickname of “Philly the Kid’ as her music company and record label. Now signed to the 111 East Music family, Jhonson returns with a funky good supporting cast on HerStory. The title was inspired by her hard working mother who fully invested in Jhonson’s musical vision. Much like her previous work: It’s About Time, Keep the Music Playing and Pearls, HerStory aims to please those that crave the pure elements of smooth jazz with a heap of funk frosting. . “Do Something Else,” released as a 2010 sneak preview of HerStory, mixes Latin spiced
saxophone from Tom Braxton. Dwayne ‘Smitty’ Smith supplies some tasty bass guitar licks for “Dear Aaron.” The head nodding “Crusin’ After Dark” featuring trumpeter Lin Rountree demonstrates Jhonson’s clever spacing leading into the one-two ‘funky horn break’ punch. “Electric Lady” is a showcase for the keytar; a synthesized keyboard which produces deep, melodic acoustic bass lines. The solemn “For You Mom” steers away from the grooves for a short period, yet Jhonson still manages to ooze poignancy without the schmaltzy effect.

HerStory may be pretty much the smooth jazz prototype for many. But what puts the icing on the cake is the passion and expressions Jhonson puts into every note and chord plus the guest musicians she surrounds herself with. And of course, there is the undeniable funk factor that Jhonson is passing; as a teacher and musician; onto future generations of jazz groove architects.

Peggy Oliver
The Urban Music Scene