Born in 1958, Jeff grew up in White Plains, New York. He started taking guitar lessons well before his teens. By fourteen he had a band, Money Back Guarantee, and was playing at school and library events. When the family moved to Annapolis, Jeff joined the Wildcats, playing professionally with Tom Mitchell, a great swing and blues guitarist (who can be heard on Mapleshade #10632).
A couple of years later the upright bass reached out and grabbed Jeff: “The first time I heard Charlie Haden, I was captivated by the sound and the look of the bass. From the moment I picked one up, I never put it down.” His first bass-playing gig, in 1979, was with a great D.C. area soul and rockabilly singer, Billy Hancock and his Tennessee Rockets. “The first year was a nightmare. I hadn’t been playing bass for very long, so my fingers would be bleeding at the end of each gig. It was torture...” He went on to play with many of the best blues-based bands in the area: the Uptown Rhythm Kings, Big Joe and the Dynaflows, the Hula Monsters, Bob Margolin, Bill Kirchen, Kevin McKendree, Ann Rabson and others. Starting in the mid-eighties, Jeff added national and international touring to his steady D.C. area work, touring with slide guitar giant John Mooney (a 20 year association), Anson Funderburg & Sam Myers, and singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw.
I met Jeff soon afterwards, around 1987, when Ben Andrews joined up with Mark Wenner and Jeff to form the Blue Rider Trio—and to start the first Trio recording project. From the first rehearsal session, I hit it off with Jeff instantly. We became fast friends, sharing a love of old motorcycles, vintage recording equipment, thrift store blues records, obscure African instruments and, above all, a love of tweaking the bass for better sound. Informally, Jeff soon became one of my most trusted A&R advisers, bringing to Mapleshade superb talent like the uniquely gifted mountain swing pianist, Bob Willoughby, and Big Joe Maher, the wonderfully relaxed jump blues shouter and drummer. Together, they formed the core of our highly successful Mojo project (Wildchild! #02352)—and that, in turn, spawned lots more good Jeff Sarli-inspired sessions.
Jeff, ever restless for new challenges, started building up a vintage recording studio in the basement of his home in Annapolis, often dropping by Mapleshade to exchange ideas. In that studio, he became mentor and inspiration to a whole young generation of punk and roots rockers—all the while expanding his blues, swing and rock horizons with new forays into world, country and even Latin music.
In 1995 he landed a gig in Branson, Missouri with Patsy!—the long-running, very glitzy tribute to Patsy Cline. After only three months, the crushing commercialism drove him back to the D.C. blues and rock scene and his touring and recording with John Mooney. A year later, through Rob Fraboni, Mooney’s producer, Jeff got a call to go to Connecticut to jam with Keith Richards. They hit it off, jammed all day and even laid down a few scratch tracks. A half year later, when Keith and the Stones gathered in L.A. to put together their Bridges to Babylon album, they brought Jeff out to play upright on one track. He ended up playing on three. As Keith put it, “Got this guy from Baltimore, Jeff Sarli, plays like Willie Dixon. I didn’t want that same electric bass texture. I wanted a little more roll to it, ‘cos we’ve got enough rock.” The resulting fame didn’t change Jeff much. He stuck with his commitment to gritty rock and blues—and to the young musicians he was mentoring.
Touring in 1999, Jeff had a nearly fatal accident in his van. There followed months of physical therapy to rebuild his shattered shoulder. He and Ben and Mark had already agreed to do a second Blue Rider Trio album to follow up on the success of the first. We put off the recording date until Jeff felt he was ready.
When Jeff showed up at Mapleshade for the first night’s session, he told me it was his first gig since the accident. The next three nights were a real act of heroism and selfless dedication to music. Though Jeff was obviously in pain, he made light of it—and played his buns off. Both his sound and his musicianship were better than ever. The hard years on the road, the endless hunger to create something new, had added profound layers of subtlety and expression to his blues.
At the very beginning of 2006, Jeff moved to Nashville, almost immediately landing a weekly spot at the Bluebird with Mike Henderson, Pat O’Conor and Kevin McKendree plus a number of studio sessions. His touring and recording with John Mooney continued; they appeared at the 2006 New Orleans &Jazz Heritage Festival as well as the Rock ‘n’ Bowl. Succumbing to kidney disease, he died in August 2006. He was 48 years old.
He left behind a musical legacy of more than 35 albums.