Ode to Jef Lee Johnson: The Promise of Lovolution

Charles Blass By

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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!

Trish—Patricia V. Johnson—was 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



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