Ode to Jef Lee Johnson: The Promise of Lovolution

Charles Blass By

Sign in to view read count
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 enough—he'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 him—no 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 playing—which 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 day—all 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 was—the 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.

—JoAnne Johnson & The Johnson Family

Painting Jeff Schlanger, musicWitness.com
About Jef Lee Johnson
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...



Jazz Near Zurich
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.