"When the music's happening, life is happening.... Why must we only join hands after the storm?... How true are you? Nothing else even matters." Jef Lee Johnson
Jef Lee Johnson, prolific, virtuosic, humble, was in some ways not made for this world. "I'm over the world," he sang. He was certainly made for music though.
Time to tell the truth about Jef Lee Johnson. For too many, it's better late than never. His brilliance was evident enough, however in his lifetime many people, including fellow artists and the entertainment industry, weren't able to face his truth.
News of Johnson's passing (from pneumonia and diabetes complications on January 28, 2013) spread like wildfire across the interwebs. Fans and fellow musicians, associates and bystanders, expressed heartfelt shock and dismay.
This will hardly be comprehensive as a survey or "proper" obit. The magnitude of Jef's ability and output deserves at least a Wikipedia page and ultimately a book and film.
Below (get comfortable, it'll be a while) I've gathered plenty of high energy reflections from the worldwide Jef Lee Johnson community (concentrated in Philadelphia, New York and Europe). The voices of a multitude of artist associates, friends and fans attest to Jef's greatness and to the chasm between his tremendous significance and the low level of acknowledgement during his life. Dogpile-style, this is a town meeting on Jef Lee Johnson, maybe reminiscent of a WKCR marathon memorial.
Also contained below are several related links including information on a scholarship fund in Jef Lee Johnson's name.
The odyssey of Jef Lee Johnson could be considered a tragedy, in that he died without "widespread" recognition; yet he touched everyone in his path with pure beauty, wisdom and humor, which is a miracle. Jef's prolific output and furious globetrotting (not to mention continual orbit between New York and Philly) meant he was always a moving target, and real quiet about his accomplishments. I've assembled some of the events and highlights in Jef's world that intersected the orbit of my attention and most grateful experience. Perhaps laying the groundwork for a more comprehensive examination, the overall result will be more impressionistic. Someday his full discography, sessionography, videography might be approached. Here is a work in progress, collection of links and resources relating to Jef Lee Johnson at Pearltrees.com
Jef's been at the pulsing heart of my musical-spiritual universe since I first basked in his tones, thanks to Mitch Goldman's organizing the earth- and sky-shattering Mondays with Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society at the old Knitting Factory in 1989-90. I barely missed a single set.
Since that moment, barely a week went by without my telling someone about "my favorite living guitarist." Barely a day has gone by that I don't think about Jef, or a week when I don't listen to his music and tell someone how great he is; as he left the planet, that just turned into a moment. Almost every episode of "Audio Gumbo" or "Sun Radio" for over twenty years featured some of Jef's music. He's still among the most sublime players ever, alive or post-alive. Of course, they're all still breathing their special brand of fire and light.
For a time in the early-mid 1990s Jef and I worked together closely, and over the years I've supported his efforts especially promoting and sometimes booking, producing, recording.
My journey with Jef, as ally and supporter, sometime "manager" or unwitting adversary, all-time believer, include so many bright moments. Looking back, the amount of driving he did between Philly and New York was extreme. And considering the amount of bread involved in most cases, it was absurd. He was so giving, for what seemed to be small gigs, which made all the difference to whomever was involved. He touched many of us with his presence, even though not so many were in attendance.
Beyond supreme musicianship (on nearly all instruments), Jef's artistry was complete: He excelled in poetry, filmmaking and the technical aspects of producing contemporary audiovisual media. His lyrics demonstrate word mastery that must be discovered to be believed.
Jef's instruments and machines included: vocals, guitar, bass, drums, chromatic harmonica, saxophone, sequencing, recording, video production... Jef's use of the recording studio, sound effects, drum programming, rhythm and vocal arranging abilities are all uncanny. Live, one of his preferred setups was two Fender amplifiers angled to envelop the room with his stereo beam. He always impressed me with the gorgeous and perfectly original sounds he created with his gear.
Jef's own music, performed mainly in trio format, is exquisite, blissful. In Philadelphia, New York, France and a few other places, for years audiences were treated to Jef's incendiary appearances. With Rob Reddy's Honor System and numerous other projects, Jef was featured prominently, along with bassist Dom Richards and drummer Pheeroan akLaff among others. Fans of Jef were thrilled to catch him any time with anyone, and Reddy's groups and adventurous compositions provided important channels for Jef.
Jef also appears on a handful of seminal hip-hop/R&B albums with some premier recording artists who generally under-utilized (perhaps wasted) his talents. One bar looped, down in the mix? Why get Jef? A couple of exceptions in which Jef is permitted to do his thing include Common's "Jimi Was A Rockstar" featuring Erykah Badu, and The Roots' "Water." It's telling that upon Jef's passing Erykah Badu tweeted "Rest in Beats," as he is barely heard on the many sessions he did for her albums.
Onstage, for example with D'Angelo or Esperanza Spalding, it seemed often the same story, like having a rare sportscar in the driveway and hardly driving it beyond the courtyard. Those superstars deserve recognition for hiring Jef, but it was a mixed blessing. Few bandleaders were confident enough to let Jef shine under their auspices. He was mostly kept in the background blend save for a few precious slivers here and there.
George Duke is one notable exception. His ego didn't prevent him from giving Jef room to stretch and blow, and many documents of their fruitful collaborations are available.
Whatever the reason Jef had in recent years for taking on the cryptic moniker, there seems to have been a strong resonance with the symbolism of "Rainbow Crow." At times Jef could be considered a "dark" character but his sounds are so full of light.
Yes, there was a Guitar God who walked among us, now departed from this plane, on to the next gig. Reckoning, grappling with Jef's death. Death becoming Life. One of his last albums is called Longing Belonging Ongoing.
Jef left behind generous heaping scoops of soul, infused with so much wisdom and love, overdubbed into eternal horizon. Like Etoy's conception of eternity, Jef lives in perpetuity online. YouTube, MySpace, MyFunk and other areas remain for all to seek and behold. May you be blessed to watch and listen to Jef Lee Johnson's soul shining.
He wrote a song called "Lovevolution," and I've often wondered if in part it was a personal message (I've used the name Lovolution since around the same time I met Jef). In any case it remains a testament to Jef's magnanimous vision and diplomatic mission.
I was fortunate to see Jef this past November here in Zurich, when he passed through with Esperanza Spalding. He seemed tired but not particularly illI guess he was absorbing his illness within deep exhaustion, maybe carrying it in stride. I gifted him with some sounds from my radio programs including his trio performance at WKCR, and a mix containing Velvert Turner, Dungen, Burnt Sugar, Cal Tjader and Ed Blackwell. He was polite, gentle and wry as ever.
Circa 1990 I acquired a guitar pick that had belonged to Hendrix, and gave it to Jef. It was a light one, and he used it only once, to record acoustic guitar on a tune called "Pray for Rain." The only thing to ease the pain: We'll be forever listening to the Rainbow.
"You can fix it, make it like brand new." I'm a supercool attendant in the carpark of life" "I once was free, now I'm changed..." "We all wanna be free from something..." "You're as free as you wanna be." "Never fret, never fear, always true, always here."
"I have to put these records out myself. The music is to be heard, not just me sitting around and improving upon what's been done. It's like having paintings hanging in the house. people have to see themin my case, hear them"
a pause for sweet surrender for lasting serenade a voice heard over and under one moment spun eternal a pause for lasting serenade the sound of gentle thunder a life of song silently held tender jef lee johnson remembered Rick Iannacone
JLJ is traveling... in out all through my door/window, all around... circle beyond circle. Morita Wuji Hiroxi
Jef was one of the most unique guitarists I've worked with. His sound, choice of notes, styleall uniquely Jef. He will be dearly missed. George Duke
Everyone listen to as much of his music as you can get ahold of. Besides being an incredible player Jef was an astounding lyricist. Still not ready to accept "was," though! Chico Huff
We are forever touched and inspired by your sonic magic. Your beautiful being will always be treasured. Venissa Santi
Jef was indeed a master, a mentor, and blessing to know who has left an everlasting imprint. There are many sides of him the world has yet to know and hear. Although he had played for everyone, he never ever cared about anything but the music. His bright smile and honest perspective led us to many conversations about how to navigate through the hype of different popular music opportunities, while still maintaining integrity and musicianship. At the end of the day, for Jef it was all about honesty and authenticity. Crystal Torres
It is truly a cloudy day as guitarist Jef Lee Johnson has passed. Bruce Mack
Having an extremely difficult time processing the steady departures of God's Best Work as part of 'God's Plan.' I don't know if I can believe in anything arbitrarily that cuts angels down in their prime while leaving evil and mediocrity to fester unchecked. Always remember, do whatever you do at FULL SPEED because we don't all make the finish line. ...BIG shoes to fill... Darrell McNeill
The only possible lesson, the only possible message is to love each other, care for each other, appreciate each other while we can. All we have is now. Brian Cullman
What a great musician and very humble guy. It sucks that most of us are "self employed" so we don't have health care. And people wonder why musicians pass on at an early age. Me, him, Trevor [Clark], and Nate Adderley got the Aretha gig from the NY audition at SIR in 88. I didn't know how great he was till I left the rehearsal room on a break, and he stayed-playing-and blew me away. Atticus Finch
One of the great talents of his generation, carried death inside him since his wife was taken in a car accident... I hope you get to see her again Jef, and finally put your sorrow to rest! Jacques Schwarz-Bart
Here's a sleep dream I had... we're riding in a car, someone is driving, I'm in the front passenger seat, Jef and another guy are in the back seat. This guy in the back with Jef is talking all kinda shit about intervals and musical structures, the feeling was not that the cat was truly inspired as much as he was trying to impress Jef. Well Jef is looking at me with this satirical look on his face trying to be cool wit dude, dude is goin on and on, and finally Jef interjects... "Man it's really just about the CRY TONE system..." Well dude was so busy rappin when Jeff spoke dude was somewhat startled, paused for a second and continued rappin... "Oh yea the tri-tone system bla bla bla," Jeff interjects again..."No! The CRY TONE system!..." Dude is like... "Yea root flatted 5th bla bla bla" Jeff just looked out the window with this twisted look on his face. That was some funny shit, that look on Jef's face. The next day I called Jef and told him about the dream and thanked him for turning me on to the CRY TONE system. Oddly enough this was right before his wife's sudden death. I guess the Cry Tone System will take its place in the archives with all the cats. Rick Iannacone
He is so lyrical it hurts!!!!!!!! A humbled gentleman, with chops so intense he didn't have to brag. He had a universal talent... to share with everyone! Andre Lassalle
Before Jef joined my band he played for my brother's Punk Funk Rock band Jimi Ernesto and the Absolute Waist Band. That was a crazy band. I heard Jef and was like wow, where did you find this guy. They did a version of Peter Gunn that was off the chain.
I think that some of Jef's first major recordings were at Philly International Records. I was the house bassist there for a time and would see Jef in sessions with Leon Huff. Huff love him some Jef Lee Johnson. Next I remember Jef got the gig with Dave Letterman's band on TV then McCoy Tyner and the rest is history.
Jef played in my band the Elevators for a few years, so did his wife Trish. We also played in a funk swing band the Big Push. We both loved boots and would hook up to go boot shopping. Once he found a pair of electric green iguana cowboy boots and rushed to pick me up to go by them. He said they were meant for me. They were some hot boots! He could always play anything he wanted to, no hesitation just play it. Jef was Philly's Monk. Unique, complex and full of life. Trish was the love of his life. They were a beautiful couple. After Trish was killed in a horrible car accident, Jef slipped into a very dark blue cave. There was no light there. We kinda lost touch for a couple years. I ran into him last year in LA and was so happy to see the light in his eyes. He had come out that cave and had the most beautiful smile on his face. We had a great hang and I thank God that he found that happy place in his life. Steve Green
Jef is on to his new adventures but it's comforting to know energy never dies. All-One in the Quantum. We played on numerous projects during the 70's in Philly and our mutually extreme twisted sense of humor and outlook on life gave way to very interesting times of exploring the unlimited realms of creativity. He was true to himself which brought forth the originality he was known for. Watching his massive contribution to the world of music and art through the years was not surprising given his unrestricted approach to this existence. Jef and I played in some cover bands and worked on some original material but nothing was recorded except for idea tapes. The highlights were just the fact we were working on original material and spent a lot of intense time improvising through various styles. The art of improvisation came naturally to both of us as well as the group of Philly musicians we had regular sessions with. All during this time was also the constant off-the-wall humor, extreme wordplay and running commentary on life. Jef had the rare ability to really go "out there" without regard to boundaries or limitations. In other words, we got along famously. Darren Ginn
He changed the way that many of the young guitarists that I grew up with in the Philadelphia area conceive what is even possible on the instrument sonically, technically and as a vehicle for expression. I think he literally melted my entire face off on several occasions and he certainly left a lasting impression... Mike Spiegel
I'm glad that I brought tears to his eyes sometimes from laughter when we was travelling or hangin back stage, cracking stupid jokes. Because I know he was troubled about his lost love. Just two weeks ago we was sendin old skool rap videos back and forward for laughs. He was really into Son Of Bazerk. Deejay Grazzhoppa
Here's my first cab ride to soundcheck with Jef: "All this is part of the song... We're playing that tonight... You see these flowers?... I'm playing them tonight...." Of course, with absolutely no rehearsal beforehand. Pat Dorcean
We went over to Morocco to do trio gigs. One of the gigs was a double bill with Hamid el Kasri and at the end we played together. Wild! I asked one of the musicians where 'one' was and he had no idea what I was talking about. Jef totally understood it instantly, as he always did. Incredible experience. Chico Huff
Jef Lee Johnson was by far the most talented guitarist I know. He often joined me on live gigs adding more vibe and greatness to the shows than I could have imagined. In the studio he was generous with ideas, always innovative. And as a friend, he was caring and "real," always pushing me to be the best writer, artist, person I could be, always believing in me. That is a very huge thing, to have someone like that in your corner.
He taught me so much without even trying to; he changed the way I thought about music. I used to struggle with writing, always wanting my songs to be perfect. I think we all do that. But the truth is, life is imperfect in every way, so then so should art be. He taught me that, gave me the freedom to know that what I was writing, my voice, the understated way I play my guitar...was good enough... no, was right, just as it should be. Lizanne Knott
Jef Lee Johnson, Prince of Humility, was uncomfortable when we confessed all the good we thought of him. He loved to be loved just like he loved others: discreetly. A glance, a sympathetic ear was enough. His guitar said the rest. Frederic Goaty
Jef Lee was never widely known to the outside world as he should have been, but he is (I can't write 'was') one of the greatest musicians of our time. His time here was full of tragedy, and we wish somehow we could have made this a better world, to deserve and honor and celebrate a person of such exquisite quality. We will keep on trying for that new world. We love you always, Jef Lee. Margaret Davis Grimes
Jef Lee is a real manifestation of the blues, and beyond that, a genius. The music he plays transports us all. Henry Grimes
A sad, sad day for music-lovers. Describing one of my friends as "an unrecognized musical genius" might narrow it down to a few dozen people but if you asked THEM who that phrase best described they might likely have chosen Jef Lee Johnson.
He did what no one else could do. Look him up on youtubethere are plenty of clipsand you will see. And don't be hypnotized by his brain-crushing guitar playing; check out his songs to experience his humanity.
We have only just started to miss him. Mitch Goldman
A guitar crooner in a world of guitar screamers. Jef, Thank you for all your wonderful time here with us making music and making the world better. I only wish you could have known the joy you have given me and so many others with your music and your spirit. Meet me in the middle of the air... Dean Bowman
It was an elliptical experience being around Jef. He brought out the truth in people. As soon as he was in your orbit you would know if you were bullshitting musically (and yourself as a human). It was always a surreal experience. Deb Silver
One of the most sensitive souls I have ever met. One of the greatest musicians I have ever met. One of the best friends I have known.Cindy Blackman-Santana
Jef Lee Johnson has brought me to another truth. Rest now and laugh as some will only now understand the gift. Jef Lee Johnson an American Composer Guitarist Vocalist Producer Sonic Dancer......Play On Brother. Fly on...it does rain but I will still burn !! Ronny Drayton
There is no way to overemphasize, especially at this point in time, how my own writing on music is completely embedded in musicWitness art original picture-Testimony, within the full-scale hands-made analog source of the reduced digital versions seen on your screen. Just like the rhythms of the marks and colors, everything is emerging directly out of the live listening experience in real time.
It was the intense experience with Sonny Sharrock's huge, palpably buoyant river of rainbow-colored sound, still carrying my body on through the past 20 years, that prepared my readiness for Jef Lee's stunning, completely-inhabited Sonny-spirit playing Space Ghost in tribute the first time I heard him in 1998.
musicWitness policy has always been to offer the art first of all in enduring applause for the performing musician, so Jef Lee had visual prints of each encounter and just today, Margaret Davis Grimes recalled this sweet, funny observation, "Jeff handed Jef Lee a print of one of Jeff's art works, and I think Jeff wasn't sure Jef Lee would like it or want to have it, and Jeff asked to have it back for a minute for some reason, and Jef Lee pulled himself up to his full height and intoned: "You'll have to fight me for it!" "
Jef Lee had also received a full-size 100cm high-definition color print of The THRILL five years ago at the Jazz Standard in New York. Looking in deeply, he expressed, in his own natural, quiet, extra- humble way, an intimately-articulated direct feeling for the movement of the layers of colors in close touch with his personal sound. At the end of that evening when Time FOX was thrown down, we loaded the framed THRILL together with his axe into his car across the street from the club and he rolled home to Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia, the first roots of the musicWitness Project had begun to grow down at Pep's and the Showboat Lounge back in the late 1950s. Listening then to Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt, Miles Davis with John Coltrane and Cannonball live with a sketchbook on the bar, I can realize now how another ripple was already expanding out of the actual birth of Jef Lee Johnson's ever-resonant 'Circle and Sound.'
JLJ's sound is all about the Mystery. He loved to play it out of his standing shadow, not the spotlight. A few more souls may get connected and tune in to the sounds. Jeff Schlanger
We worked together with George Duke and Rachelle Ferrell for many years and he TRULY will be missed by all who really knew and loved THE REAL Jef Lee Johnson.
On the outside, Philly-born guitarist Jef Lee Johnson could seem aloof to most people. He seemed very distant and unfazed by anything or anyone. Constantly pondering life and all of its questions. But there was another Jef Lee Johnson that most people never took the time to know.
"The Little Rascals" (Hal Roach Studios 1920's -30's) was one of his very favorite subjects to laugh and talk about during breaks at recording sessions or while on the phone. If Jef could have been any one of the characters from that early comedy series, he would have been the little black child known affectionately as "Stymie." The reason I say that is because in my view, most of what went on around Jef Lee as far as the world was concerned... well, it stymied him. It puzzled him. It made him look and shake his head in confusion and amazement and then quietly lower his head once again to begin yet another creative guitar excursion.
Jef's inner light came on once he met the love of his life, his lovely wife Trish. They shared something rare that only a few of us ever really get to experience... Being in love with someone who truly "gets us." They "got" each other and it was evident whenever I would see them together. Trish was a musician as well; an accomplished sax, flute and accordion player. From the first time I met her I could see that they were a pair of matching bookends. In 2001 Trish was abruptly taken away from Jef and everyone who loved her one morning in a head-on collision with another vehicle while on her way to visit her mother. It's my understanding that Jef was still sleeping when she left the house that day. I heard that she didn't want to disturb his sleep, so she just left a note and quietly slipped out of the house and into her car. He didn't get to say goodbye. Jef was devastated by her loss. I know that his heart died that day.
After Trish's death, Jef went underground. I and many other friends tried to call and rally around him but he would not answer. Remember, Jef was a loner. He had to deal with this tragedy in his own way. So I and others stopped calling and just let him be. Jef Lee did eventually emerge from his grief and he did begin to play and perform again.
A trendy and sometimes flamboyant dresser (wish I could have worn half the cool stuff he would come up with!). He was a loner; a dry wit; a warm and wonderful heart and soul. A hell of an innovative guitarist while at the same time staying extremely musical and therefore reachable. A quick smile while peeking out from under his round pink tinted sunglasses and then back to the groove. And if you could get him to really laugh out loud, there was nothing like it... Jef could sometimes laugh until he cried! I'll miss you my friend... Those of us you leave behind are far better for having known you. Larry Martin Kimpel
I first met Jef in the summer of 1989 on a tour working for singer/songwriter Miles Jaye. It was a small tour and we traveled in a converted van that was to take us around the east coast and the middle states.
At first I wasn't sure what to make of this very uniquely different individual, but as soon as he picked up the guitar, I knew to pay attention. Jef was an amazing musician and quite a character.
Soon after that tour, I would play with Jef quite often with Jerry and Katreece Barnes throughout New York City. Jef was a very special friend with a very distinct sense of humor that I adored.
We always had a great time on and off the bandstand. In 1993 I was signed to Polygram Publishing and called Jef anytime I could get him to play on my song demos. What a joy to have access to a musician such as Jef that could make your music sound better than you heard it in your own head; I didn't want to write a song without him on it.
In that same period of my publishing deal, I was blessed to produce a record on Chaka Khan for Warner Bros. Records. Jef was so instrumental in making the song happen, even Chaka Khan wanted to know who he was when she heard the track. To this day his performance is unforgettable!
It was not released: "Queen of Hearts." Warner blocked all production of Chaka that year. They released a greatest hits record and then they dropped her from the label. The song also features Michael Bearden on piano and synth strings, Steve Kroon on percussion. The rest is my programming.
I watched as Jef's career was rapidly building. He was in demand by amazing artists including George Duke, Rachelle Ferrell and so many others. The blessings and gifts that were bestowed upon this wonderfully soft-spoken and caring spirit was clearly a once in a lifetime phenomenon. I had never before met anyone like Jef Lee Johnson and I am sure that I never will again in this lifetime.
Through the trials and tribulations of his life, he maintained such a wonderful and loving aura, one would have never known the pain and losses he had suffered.
Music, friends, family and the world has lost an angel. I am sure he was called home to do bigger and better things. Ivan Hampden Jr.
It was shocking and painful to lose Jef Lee. His song, such a screaming of joy within the modest and unsuspecting frame. Pheeroan AkLaff
I met Jef musically and personally in 1994 on tour in Europe and recording "What Spirit Say" with Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society. In this musical endeavor I've been fortunate to find a sonical kindred spirit and great brother with whom I'd swap Jimi Hendrix dreams when they would come to pass. This earthly realm was blessed during the 54 years he existed here and the universe is rejoicing in the newest addition to the galactic ensemble! Peace be upon my brother Jef Lee Johnson. James Carter
Playing and recording with Jef Lee was like watching/hearing/feeling the time delayed blossoming of a dozen roses coming from a six string guitar. He sung the melodies I wrote with such warmth passion and humor that it made me laugh play and cry at the same time inside. A true Avant-Garde Harmolodic original, Jef Lee Johnson's spirit will never die. Ronald Shannon Jackson
I don't compose for instruments, I compose for people. I've had the privilege of having Jef Lee Johnson's sound and soul and spirit in my head for many years now. His sound, phrasing, unbelievably unique approach will never ever dissipate. Rob Reddy
This man is so humble it makes YOU humble just being around him. No ego. Because of this, he didn't have anything to prove, and when you truly don't have anything to prove you make art from an unadulterated place. Very few people have this. If even an ounce of this this rubbed off on me from our years playing together I am a way better musician and person because of it.
I think it's important to celebrate Jef for HIS music; for his prolific solo albums and his live trio concept. Most interviews over the years and now obituaries tend to focus on his career as a side man, and rightfully so since it's so immense. Jef was adamant about creating in the moment... having the exploration on stage be part of the audience's experience. "Play More," "This is the anti-gig where you play everything you wanted to play but held back...""Play whatever you want." As a drummer, these are the words you've wanted to hear your whole life! However this is equally daunting. I remember drummer Michael Bland talking about going through the same thing...most times drumming is all about structure and we're always trying to boil down to the essence of a song and support support support. Jef wanted everyone in the conversation...listen listen listen, flow flow flow. The improvisational journeys I've been on playing with Jef are the deepest musical experiences of my life.
Zimmerman Shadow was conceived and produced by Jean Rochard. He did pick most of the tunes, however each tune's interpretation was all Jef. It was funny, like Jef put on a disinterested vibe towards the record all the way up to the day of recording. I was calling him and asking "whats the vibe?, what are the tunes" etc. And he said these exact words: "Man, we're just gonna go in there, make some noise, and leave. I don't even want to hear playback." ...Not in an angry way, just in a nonchalant "just another day" kind of way... When it came time to actual moment of tracking, he was very much into it, spewing out tempos, feels, bass lines he'd clearly thought through... we'd come up w a groove and 30 seconds later He'd say "OK OK lets cut lets cut" ...Everything on there is a 1st or 2nd take with very little overdubbing. Never been more on my toes in the studio than that day. Because of that fresh hyper-awareness there's no time to focus on anything else but the moment, and that's what Jef wants the listener to feel.
Words cannot describe the impact he's had on me as a drummer and a person playing in his band the last 6-7yearssoul, groove, improv, noise, authority, sensitivity, when to play nothing, when to unleash, what really matters, and what really does not...and that X factor that will bring someone to tears and leave them with a "stank lip" at the same time. I am forever grateful for him seeing something in me when I was young and inviting me to play his own music on six European tours, many Philly/NYC gigs, and an incredible trio record The Zimmerman Shadow. Through these trips and experiences I got to know Jef and his one of a kind "call it as I see it"/"take it or leave it" outlook totally unimpressed by any level of celebrity, a true non-believer in hype or anything material (aside from guitars and clothes of course), and a preacher of being in the moment both on and off the stage. I cherish these memories and every second we've spent making music together. Jef is truly a rare musical energy. His playing is liquid; like a faucet of pure unadulterated creativity that's gushing when the guitar is in his hands, sounding like a master with infinite years of wisdom and simultaneously like a child that just discovered the guitar.
This is a huge loss I can barely wrap my head around. My deepest condolences to his family and the vast musical world he's touched over the years. Charlie Patierno
My wife and I were very close to Jef. We loved him like a brother, and we are grieving. We had been close for so long, and been through so much together. The tragedy of the death of his wife Trish, with whom my wife was very close, was unfortunately the dominant factor in the rest of Jef's life. He was profoundly sad and hurting.
I was inexpressibly fortunate to spend so much time with Jef, both musical and personal. Either circumstance was a lesson, for he was a singular and unique thinker. Whether making music or just hanging out together, I always learned from him.
Musically, of course, he was in his own category, with no equal. Truly a gift, a talent, and skills obtained through constant probing, on a par with the great creators of our time ('Trane, Monk, Hendrix, etc.) To be around someone of that ilk is a rare gift, indeed. To make music with them regularly over time is beyond description.
I was fortunate to have Jef on four of my records, and I was honored to play on two of his. We did many crazy and memorable gigs together, mostly in Philly, one or two in NYC. (Guttbucket, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Rob Reddy, our own trios and quartets, etc.)
As to stories: too numerous to remember. He was a pure musician. Every time he picked up his instruments, it was to seek truth. We all know that musical categories are meaningless. No one personifies this more that Jef, for he always elevated the music regardless of style or category. We were so close as friends, and played so much together, but in actuality our musical backgrounds were very different. But he taught me that when we played it was all just music and none of that other nonsense mattered. That being said, I remember him yelling at me during one gig that if I called "Giant Steps," he'd kill me!
TrishPatricia V. Johnsonwas a fantastic musician in her own right. Her principal instrument was baritone saxophone, but she also excelled at flute and accordion! She can be heard playing those instruments on Jef's records (On Hype Factory, she plays flutes on "Conventional Wisdom" and accordion on "Bye, Bye," "No, No...(reprise)" and "Movin' On.") [Note: Trish also appears on Jef's albums St. Somebody, Things Are Things, and Black & Loud.] She was in various Philly bands including a fine ska band called Ruder Than You, an all-woman saxophone quartet called Winds of Jazz, and a big band called The Elevators. She taught and also enjoyed playing accordion for old folks in retirement homes and care facilities. She was a beautiful person. Ben Schachter
Jef's not an easy person to talk about. He's the ultimate musical chameleon. Nobody that I've ever worked with was able to get inside of things as stylistically invisibly as Jef. Nobody. I've worked with a lot of the greatest living musicians in the world, and none of them could do what Jef did. Jef was just a freak. A total freak. There was no one like him.
Jef had a pentatonic funky simplicity mated with an avant-gardist's sense of searching and a jazz cat's manual dexterity. When it came time to do the Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson project, Jef was the only person I could imagine that embodied the kind of eclectic, genre- bending spirit of Lonnie himself.
Unlike lesser talents who were better ass kissers and sycophants, Jef resolutely put art above commerce every single day of his life. He didn't suffer fools gladly and if he sensed insincerity and a traitorous disregard for honesty in art he packed up his axe and strolled out the door. In New York or L.A. that kind of behavior doesn't endear you to kingmakers and power players who want you to be an obedient little slave...
Adam Guth and I worked with Jef on Gutbucket as well as a few bands and projects that preceded that group. We spent countless hours, playing, writing and rehearsing at my house, Jef's, Adam's and in rehearsal spaces and studios around the region. We played many, many, many shows together for a long time. Always magical. Jef would show up and he would be all sour, downcast. By the time the gig was over he'd be laughing and joking and goofing around. Music always brought Jef back. You'd do a gig with Jef, and whatever little money you would cobble together, Jef would say, "Oh it's cool, it's cool," and then on the ride home he'd say, "Pull over to the gas station," and he'd fill up your tank with gas, take you out to dinner, and he'd end up with nothing. And he'd say, "Thank you." I mean what kind of person is that, man? The dude was a saint. There's no other way to put it.
I felt inspired to establish the scholarship in Jef's name, at the Germantown branch of the Settlement Music School. So I'm encouraging anyone that considers themselves a friend of Jef's to contribute to it. No one that was a friend of Jef Lee Johnson's has any excuse as to why they are not ponying up to help a scholarship in Jef's name to support a young musician who doesn't have the money to take guitar lessons in Germantown.
Jef Lee has cast off this mortal coil and each of us that loved him is grieving but Jef was not a musician, he was music itself and as we all know music goes on forever. Aaron Luis Levinson
Listen to the title cut on Jef's Hype Factory. The solo is unreal. Not at all a heavy distortion workout. It is a masterclass in straight up funk swag. Each idea is a perfect little composition, each one a statement. The one at 3:24 kills me. It's like he just wipes his hands with anyone who ever thought they were funky. And he just keeps going because he could do it for days. Jef's sense of funk always cut to the bone. That's because he WAS funk. It didn't matter what genre he was playing. He could be playing with a singer-songwriter whose music had nothing to do with funk and he would always play the perfect shit. And always, somewhere in there, maybe just a little note bend in a certain spot, Jef made sure the funk entered the building. He understood the spiritual implications of that. That's how I approach the drums as well. It's why he and I got along so well. That he saw it in me is my greatest honor and inspiration.
He can also out Steely a Dan. On Longing Belonging Ongoing, check out TV People and Gods Gone By. Beautiful transcendent songwriting.
We'd come off a gig and I'd say, "I saw you smiling, Jef." He'd say, with a twinkle in his eye, "That wasn't a smile, that was grimace." I'd say, "You can't fool me. You had some fun!" He'd grumble, "Yeah, yeah," in that 'whatever' tone but I could see him smiling again out of the corner of my eye in the dark of the car.
Jef was always supportive of anything I was trying to do. He would come and play gigs for pennies. He would always be right in the moment, playing as if it was the most important gig in the world. Then on the drive home, he would insist on buying me food and filling my gas tank, thereby exhausting his night's pay. I would thank him profusely and he would say. "No, thank YOU." No, thank YOU, Jef.
People will talk about what a great musician he was and it will be too little too late. It was Jef the human being that made all that music possible. It was the soul of the man. Adam Guthrie
I first saw Jef Lee in play 1992. I had recently moved to Philly from my hometown of Spokane, WA. A housemate suggested we hop on our bikes and go to a club called 40th Street Underground in W. Philly to see some crazy band. It was Gutbucket (Jef Lee, Ace Levinson, Ben Schachter, Adam Guth, Jamaaladeen Tacuma). The most raw, insanely funky and ripping music I'd ever heard live. What was coming from the stage brought my mind to a complete halt and shot me, like a cannon, into outer space. The guitarist was astounding. He was Hendrixy, but had a sound and a reach that I'd never heard before. Completely original, steeped in blues and sonically punishing. You could follow every line he played as if on a roller-coaster. Musically, I felt like I'd been handed a compass, but the needle was spinning out of control in every direction. And I wanted to follow it.
He was a master. His pocket and musical authenticity were mesmerizing. Jef was mysterious and could be dark and introspective. But he was incredibly humble and gracious. When he smiled, the whole world brightened. These encounters solidified for me the notion that true greatness was tempered with humility. Kevin Hanson
Jef Lee Johnson moved seamlessly through the traditions of the blues, r&b jazz and freeform, treating them all as one extended language yet housing those ideas cleverly in a pop structure format that allowed it to travel well. Jef Lee's music carries the sonic signifiers that one's ear is accustomed to if you're aware of the rich arch of important American music. One can hear Wattstax, Texas Blues, Memphis blues , Prince, Wes Montgomery, Hendrix with a twinge of the rural heartland.
Yet he still possessed that wide perspective that stretched from the chaotic surges, reminiscent of Sonny Sharrock superimposed over verses filled with playful, bitter, sweet irony.
His chordal movements have a sentimental touch to them, yet stay firm and never fall into the syrup bowl. Above all he is a voice on guitar who left a body of cleverly crafted songs that used popular forms to express intimate and urgent messages. Jean-Paul Bourelly
Jef Lee Johnson aka Rainbow Crow, you've made your wings and you took your flight to the stars. Our sadness is immense. But we know that you do not really left us, and if we know how to listen, you'll receive in each musical note in each silence. We will dedicate the next festival, Jef, from the bottom of our heart. Peace and respect. L'équipe de Sons d'hiver (Team Winter Sounds)
He was really full of music, that's for sure. Many people just saw him as sort of a Jimi Hendrix-ish kind of player, which was not what I felt... Jef was much more in tune with a sort of Coltrane idea... in fact I could feel more of the Jimi Hendrix thing when he was singing. We were talking about making another album, soon, "Letters from Jef Lee Johnson to Robert Johnson." Jean Rochard
Jef was the man. A transcendental talent and human being. The world is a better place for his having been here. My world, personally, is a much better place for his having been in it. He was a musical big brother to me. I'm sad he's gone. I'm glad he's at peace though... because if anyone deserved some peace, he did. Steven Wolf
I still can't believe Jef is gone. Just like that. Gone! MY FRIEND & BROTHER WHO JUST HAPPENS TO BE ONE OF THE GREATEST MUSICIANS TO EVER CREATE MUSIC ON THIS PLANET. There's not enough room here to elaborate on all great times and experiences we shared together @ recording sessions, on stage, going camera shopping, just hanging @ his crib or mine... JEF was not only one of the best musicians in the world but he was a total gentlemen. On stage or off, what you got from JEF was real! NO PRESERVATIVES!! Ted Thomas, Jr.
"Jef Lee Johnson is a gift from God," that's what Ronald Shannon Jackson told me once during an interview. Vernon Reid described him as "Good, hardcore good, and he can sing." Jef's passing is a huge loss for all of us that ever had a chance to witness his gift and experience his charming wit, and an even larger loss for those still to be touched by his legend. Jef and his music was, is and will forever be a bright moment. J. Michael Harrison
Jef was as unique an artist as he was a human being. He was true to himself and with people. Jef was always inspired.
It's a rarity to see a musician play so many instruments at a high level and create everything from the ground up himself (recording, mixing, mastering, CD cover, video clips, flyers...).
Jef was a Griot, a Poet, a Messenger. All you have to do is listen to his lyrics to understand how deep he was.
How can an artist of this quality and vast musical experience be forgotten in the shadows? I think that's what makes Jef so special. He deserved so much more than he ultimately received.
Honestly, Jef Lee Johnson was the BEST the music has to offer.
His music and immense body of work will continue to spread all over the world. Stefany Calembert & Reggie Washington
All he wanted was some good energy & folks enjoying his music. ... He got NO love. That's right! He said; "Watch what happens when I'm dead"!! Death shouldn't be a reason to tell of someone's accomplishments & greatness as a musician. We need that to go on in this hard & heartless business ! What about Jef ? We can be philosophical & say he can hear it all now from above. Cold facts; my Brutha got no love... & he wanted that. He deserved that. Better late than never ?? That ain't right !! Don't sweat it Jef. I told you every time we played during our 25+ year friendship. Reggie Washington
Few journalists wrote about Jef's music and I've tried to spread his music for 6 years. Now that he is gone, you see articles everywhere in the world about him. ... Jef & I were speaking on the phone often and for hours, and he was saying : "Watch when I'll be dead, they'll start speaking about me !." He was right... So sad.
I wish people were smarter, more curious and with more heart. You have to wait for somebody to die to say I loved him, I miss him, he was wonderful! FUCK THAT! Show him or her love when he/she is ALIVE ! SCREAM IT !!! That's what Jef needed... RECOGNITION. He needed that so bad.
It's important that people know that Jef was very sad about this lack of recognition.
Honestly, if he had more attention ... I am sure he would take care better of his health and of himself. That was an every day suffering: "so much work and no recognition."
I think this business & the way people can be killed him morally and it didn't help his health.
What Jef wanted is that his music is heard, the rest he didn't give a damn. Music was the only thing he had after Trish (his wife).
When I asked Jef, what can I do for you? He said I want to play my music. Nothing else. Stefany Calembert
One of the most gifted and humble musicians I ever met.... I am still trying to wrap my head around this. But after having a little time to reflect, as sad as I am, I honestly think that Jef is happier now. At least I hope he is. As unbelievably gifted as he was, and as humble as he was, and as kind as he was, he was also unbelievably sad. We are all blessed that he has left his legacy behind through his music, ...I will work to make sure that he is not forgotten.
He had canceled the show at the end of December, just after doing a show in New York City, when nobody came out to see his band. He told me he wouldn't be playing his original music live again. Fern Brodkin
Bet you the real lyrics are; "Don't f*ck with my excellent day!" Holla... Reggie Washington
Jef was on a VERY short list of absolute must see players ... such a luminous talent, one who was an under-appreciated legend here on Philadelphia. While people state the importance of straight-ahead (more or less) Philly exponents like Pat Martino, Steve Giordano, Benson, and others, Jef boldly mutated, morphed, and transcended boundaries all over the place, meanwhile getting little to no cred in the "guitar music" community in America. He is much better appreciated abroad, not surprisingly.
Cornell Dupree, Jimi, Miles, Sonny Sharrock, Jef covered the whole earth of guitar style possibilities, and was totally soulful even when skronking out! Bob Barnett
Jef Lee Johnson was so many things. To those of us in the D'Angelo camp, Jef Lee was an amazingly gifted guitarist who toured the world in 2000 as a member of the Soultronics and just last year brilliantly substituted for Jesse Johnson in our current band, the Vanguard becoming one of only two musicians to appear in both bands.
A gentle musical giant, it always struck me that Jef Lee was "cursed" with so much imaginative creativity that he couldn't be constrained by the r&b and pop genres. Left to his own devices, Jef Lee's talent soared beyond his guitar strings into uncharted territory. He was sadly under-recognized by the general public but the music world lost a major force and we lost a friend. Jef Lee's survivors and friends are in our prayers. Alan Leeds
I can give you my impression about George Duke Orchestra in Montreux. It was in 2000. Jane Birkin with Sacem organized a "Tribute to Serge Gainsbourg." Eleven French singers came for this. We were doing a small movie about Salif Keita. The Malian singer came for the rehearsal in the hotel where Duke and friends were staying. We stayed two hours in a small room, with the whole orchestra. It was wonderful. I spoke a long time with George Duke. I remember Jef Lee Johnson, sitting close to George, with his orange Strat. I asked him what kind of effects he used with his guitar. He answered me as if I knew him for a long time. GD made special arrangements of Gainsbourg songs. So, when they started playing with Salif Keita, "Je suis venu te dire que je m'en vais," it was a new song, really. Salif's voice from Africa with West Coast arrangements. Simply magic... Jef Lee was playing a rhythmic part, very softly, very jazzy. I remember Jef as a quiet, serious and very kind man. Frédéric Jouve
The first time I heard him, he was playing electric bass with Bootsie Barnes. This was back in the mid-80s. I first played with him on a jazz gig in West Oak Lane. John Scofield was the 'hot' guitarist on the major scene at the time, which was the late 80s. I remember thinking, this cat Jef is just as badd, maybe badder. Fast forward. Jef played a gig with me on my wedding night over seven years ago at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus. I don't think he looked at my music before. He played a solo on a tune of mine, where he just totally nailed the vibe of it. I never heard anyone play my music that way. A couple of years after that gig, Jef and I were hired to play with a 4-piece black male vocal group out of Vegas called Spectrum. They did Motown and Philly stuff. Jef really handled that gig well. He even had the 'sitar' guitar that was used on some Philly hit songs. We played at the Kimmel Center with the Philly Pops Orchestra. We talked quite a bit during that run. He was very open about everything he'd been through. He was complimentary about my playing, and expressed a desire to 'do something' in the future. I told him that he should have played with Miles Davis. I told that to another monster black guitarist, Ron Jennings. Jef was ahead of his time. I think some folks were hating on his enormous talent and musicianship. He did some great stuff, but should have done much, much more. He should have been a household name, as far as guitarists go. Now, after his death, he just might become that. Mike Boone
His musical depth challenged and influenced me, and I'm sure many other musicians right away and still does. His genuine and honest disposition and willingness to share with less capable musicians was an extension of that honesty. And as a friend he was again genuine and honest and kind. ...Jef would have laughed at all of this especially heartfelt quotes. Michael Elia
Mark Knox (keyboardist/composer/recording engineer who now lives in Toronto) & I (along w/ other musicians who eventually parted ways and moved back) had relocated from Indianapolis IN to Philly. I guess around 1978, in the search for a "perfect" bassist who could both swing and also play "progressive" straight-8th stuff, we were introduced to Jef by Lee Mergner (now publisher of JazzTimes but was booking/promoting us back then). After we played our first tune (probably an original by Mark Knox) together at a rehearsal, I'll never forget Jef looking at me and saying "You must have had a very disturbed childhood." This is the kind of humor Jef possessed, which was off-putting to many, but to me I realized right then and there I had met a kindred spirit. He was a great bassist (to which Jamaaladeen Tacuma also can attest), but kept insisting "we should hear him play guitar." Needless to say when we did, I was absolutely floored. We played together a lot in various situations in addition to him playing bass in his unique way (he seemed to inhabit the spaces other bassists would leave out, while still somehow completely fulfilling the requisite bottom function of the bass) with our band. In turn, Jef introduced us to Gerald Veasley for the bass but often if the particular gig paid enoughhe'd still always be added on guitar.
Unbelievably prolific, Jef would deliver everything completed and mostly play everything himself, which honestly was kind of both intimidating and inspiring to me as a drummer. Occasionally on his projects for Dreambox Media, he'd usually have a guest artist or two on certain tracks (his late wife Trish appears a lot) and live he preferred a basic trio setting. He had his own elaborate home studio and definitely knew his way around that process of recording, mixing and mastering as well as he did his instrument(s).
About "Monkey Zero," that was an earlier attempt to distance himself (for whatever reason) from "Jef Lee Johnson." The advisory warning re: "EXPLICIT CONTENT" (for an all-instrumental CD) is one of many brilliant things Jef came up with that I wish I would've thought of first. Anyway, he later parlayed that misterioso avoidance of using his actual name into the persona "Rainbow Crow," and on the most recent "Black & Loud" chose to even reduce that moniker to "a/k/a R.C." and insisted his real name appear nowhere on the product. Combined with a nearly indecipherable cover, probably NOT the way to promote yourself or move CDs...but that was Jef!!!
Jef was truly one-of-another-kind. In a perfect world, he would have been as widely known as Hendrix, Prince and Stevie Wonder. All he wanted to do was make music and it quite literally poured out of him, but he didn't care so much about the 'biz' side (as is often the case with serious artists). Plus he had the "total recall" superpower... seemed everything he'd ever heard was saved in memory somehow... and not limited to music. He could quote whole episodes of dialog (while doing the characters' voices!) from films and TV, and every time I talked to himno matter how long it'd been between conversations it was like we were just taking up where we left off from the last time. Jef was a very genuine, creative, funny and intelligent spirit. I'll miss his laugh most of all. Jim Miller, Dreamboxmedia.com
Jef Lee Johnson was not only an amazingly innovative guitarist, but a songwriter of the highest order. After meeting him and having the experience of his playing/recording on my most recent CD, my producer Glenn Barratt informed me that Jef Lee had his own recordings. He has quite the discography. I embarked on buying as many as I could. I was blown away at his songwriting. His songs are incredible. As well, Jef Lee with few exceptions played ALL OF THE INSTRUMENTS. And he played them brilliantly. His production sense was genius. I was lucky to get to know Jef some as we performed live on a few occasions as well as having recorded together. Jef Lee was all about the music. There was an instance where I did not have a lot of money to pay him for a television performance. His response to me was "keep your money." This is something I'll never forget. Most musicians (and not of Jef Lee's calibre) are never benevolent in this regard.
I emailed Jef Lee often picking his brain about his songs whenever I picked up another CD of his. His sense of harmony was amazing, in particular his guitar harmony/voice-leading. While usually not a man of many words by way of emails, on several occasions he'd be specific and write a few paragraphs. On one song "Today" from his recording "Things Are Things," I'd told him I wanted to record the song but was having a hard time figuring out the movement of the chords, the harmony. I asked to meet with him so he could show me what he'd done. His response to me was "make it your own." Thing is, what he did with the song is so beautiful I wanted to replicate. You can't ever "replicate" Jef Lee Johnson. He is one of a kind. Lili Añel
But something was so deeply wrong when we were in the studio the last time [around 1st week of January 2013]. We played, recorded, ate corn chips and waited to talk... when we did, he was barely keeping it together... all I could do was keep hugging him and saying "We all luv you, let us luv you." He told me the story about his collapse... how Chaka found him and took him to hospital. We spoke about Roy Hargrove. He said Roy was super keen to keep sure Jef was doing ok they had been in hospital at the same time. Deb Silver
I'm sure everybody's talking about his genius, I can definitely piggyback that. He was a genius, god-like guitarist. He's played on so many things with me and my sister, and we never finished some things, you know, we're just all musicians doing music. He definitely was a genius musician, not just guitar, I love his bass playing, his writing, his singing, everything, I loved it all. He's been in my life for years. We've been playing together on and off in different situations. Time goes by and next thing you know somebody's not here. He's one of my favorite musicians in my lifetime. I was blessed to play with him.
Everything happens for a reason. There's so much talent, and those who know know, and that's all that really counts. There are so many artists who are unknown, or only their family and friends know them, and they didn't become whatever. But what you become is not really what counts. Because if people focus on that kind of shit they're actually missing the beauty and the power and the honesty of the person. That might have been his struggle, but those of us who knew him and appreciated him were happy to hear whatever we heard, or whatever he offered, and he touched us. And I let him know that. That's what counts. And he thanked me for letting him realize that. Everybody has an opinion, and my opinion is that the political PR shit don't mean shit. It doesn't mean nothin' to me, somebody's Grammy or whatever. But if you're happy with yourself, living for yourself, if you're enjoying playingwhich he did, he really did. Jerry Barnes
We are very deeply saddened by Jef's sudden death and we are very grateful for the many outpourings of love and appreciation for him and his work.
Memories about Jef growing up are a little blurry at the moment however a few things stand out:
When he was a child he tried to do magic tricks; not very good but very funny (maybe in retrospect he was developing his manual dexterity and slight of hand for the guitar).
He would stay in his room and practice guitar all dayall day. He would come out of his room and make these sandwiches he called "lizard rolls" and go back into his room and keep practicing. (We never got any explanation about why the sandwiches were called "lizard rolls" they had nothing to do with either lizards or rolls; they were actually double-decker ham on toast.)
I think my parents knew he was a special talent early on and gave him a lot of room to be who he wasthe one time they suggested he get some sort of graduate degree in case the performing thing didn't work out, Jef said he would not teach; he would either play or nothing at all. My parents didn't bring it up again.
He always had great sense of style.
I don't know much about the order of his recordings especially the early gospel work... I wasn't around very much at that stage of his career. Jef was an amazing guitarist from the beginning and as his career began to take shape it wasn't a real surprise... it was just a natural outcome of those days of solitude and lizard roll sandwiches.
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