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Ode to Jef Lee Johnson: The Promise of Lovolution

Charles Blass By

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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 youtube—there are plenty of clips—and 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!" "
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