Gerald Johnson, a tenor saxophone player and Little Rock music scene mainstay, died Monday after suffering from a heart attack at the Arkansas State Library on West Capitol Avenue.* He was 56.
A Little Rock native, Gerald was the son of Thomas Johnson, a local carpenter and owner of the El Dorado Club. A substitute teacher for the Little Rock school district and the longtime host of a morning jazz program for KABF 88.3, Johnson was also a founding member of groups such as First Impressions and Afrodesia, and played saxophone for countless artists of various genres. His first band was the local funk and soul outfit Portrait, who recorded originally for Lee Anthony’s True Soul label.
“He used to play for my brother and I when we were in the talent shows around town,” said Tim Anthony, Lee’s son and a longtime collaborator. “Gerald was the one who came through every time. He is the reason I’m doing music in the first place. That’s my man.”
KABF Program Manager John Cain remembers meeting Johnson when the latter was five years old at his father’s club. “He knew practically everybody playing music around here,” Cain said. “He was a versatile, creative person.” As a radio host, Cain said Johnson was more than just a DJ. “He knew enough about the music and could research and bring all of that in,” he said. “The time, place, era, all of it. He did a good show.”
Anthony last saw Johnson perform last Thursday night at the Afterthought, at the tribute to Art Porter held as part of Jazz Week. After the set, Johnson and several other musicians went to Anthony’s studio and “just played up until like 4 o’clock in the morning.”
“He was one of my best friends,” Anthony said. “And I’m sure I was one of his, too, but I think I was one of many.”
*An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the location.