Jef Lee Johnson: A Musician’s Musician

In every field, there comes a person who redefines the parameters. When you are lucky enough to know such a genius, the pain of saying goodbye is only outweighed by the sense of commitment you feel to let the world know that such a person existed.

Early in 2013, Jef Lee Johnson passed away suddenly and unexpectedly.  Jef was one of Philadelphia’s most respected musicians, and he was loved by everyone he met. Only months before his death, I had been in the studio with Jef, finishing up my own album but now, about a year and a half later, I have had the opportunity to speak with others whose lives have been touched by Jef. I was expecting to interview one or two musicians who played with him, but everyone with whom I spoke gave me the name of another person who was willing and wanting to speak about Jef. Before I knew it, I had immense amounts of feedback and touching memories. The process reminded me of recording with Jef. We would do a few passes on a song, and every track was so good, it led everyone else to discover music they didn’t even know they could play. Jef was an artist, a true original and an inspiration. If you knew Jef, you were blessed; if you didn’t, it’s never too late to hear who he was through his music.

Touring with Esperanza Spalding two years ago as her guitar player, Jef Lee Johnson was playing in front of thousands of people every night and redefining funk. His skinny frame was unmistakable as it was clothed in something eclectic, usually dark and modern. Even on Spalding’s stage, the audience probably did not expect to see a man in his fifties wearing purple plaid skinny jeans, but Jef was there to make an impression, in every aspect of his performance.

Jef loved performing with jazz artists like Spalding, but what he really lived for was sharing his own music. He wanted people to listen to the jazz funk fusion that influenced his albums and consumed his live performances. So during a break on Spalding’s tour, he decided to perform at the Blue Note in New York in order to highlight his own music that had been removed from the spotlight for far too long. This gig was Jef’s last performance before he passed away on January 28, 2013.

“It was always fun and interesting with Jef,” says Judy, Jef’s sister. “He was the real baby of the family.” Jef was born on June 26, 1958 in Philadelphia, PA. He had four older siblings (JoAnne, Judy, Jim, and Pat), but being born last, JoAnne says that “it was almost as if he had a different set of parents than we did. Our parents were a little bit in awe of him, and they really encouraged him to do a lot of experimenting, things that would have gotten the rest of us locked-down immediately.”

First with science and astronomy (Jef always kept a giant book about the Cosmos on his coffee table), then later with music, Jef was always trying to figure out how things worked.  JoAnne and Judy laughingly remember how at one point during his childhood, Jef started playing with broken televisions his father was repairing, and he ended up leaking a toxic vapor into the house, requiring the whole family to evacuate. He was always curious, and after he discovered the guitar, Jef was determined to figure out how music worked.

“Once he started,” says JoAnne, “it was like a runaway train. It was all about the guitar.” Jef would practice day and night, experimenting with different genres and incorporating his own style. When he was younger, he played with his mother in his church’s band. “He says that he got dragged there and that he didn’t know what he was doing,” says Judy, but even when he thought that he was winging it, Jef had always shown musical promise.  Originally, he asked his sister Pat to teach him a few chords, then later took some lessons at Settlement Music School.  But Jef rapidly outgrew the classical mold and took music to a whole new level.

“He absorbed every sort of music he listened to,” says Chico Huff, a musician who connected with Jef through music both in the studio and at live gigs.  Jef had the unique ability to play any genre, on any instrument. He played what he felt, and he felt it all. “He would listen to everything,” says Huff. “It was all good. It was all music to him.”

 

Jef quickly became known in Philadelphia as an incredible session guitarist/bassist, and he was hired to play on many albums, including Billy Joel’s River of Dreams (“The River of Dreams”) and the RootsPhrenology (he played guitar with James Blood Ulmer on “Water”). “He was brilliant,” says Huff; “Hands down one of the most amazing musicians.” He was known for being able to adapt to anyone’s style while still maintaining that signature “Jef” feel.

“It was some Billy Joel song,” says Erik Mitchell, an artist who hired Jef to play on his album. “I was like, ‘yo that sounds like Jef on that bass.’ And I looked it up, and it was him! He’s one of those rare musicians where you know it’s him when you hear him.” And you can hear him everywhere.

From Mariah Carey to Rachelle Ferrell to Prince, Jef played with everyone. He played with Aretha Franklin, McCoy Tyner, George Duke, D’Angelo, Chaka Khan, and Jeff Beck, just to name a few more. Before long, news of his talent had spread throughout the music industry. “Folks were telling me about this killer guitar player Shannon (Ronald Shannon Jackson) had, so I went down to check him out,” says Reggie Washington, a notable musician himself and a close friend of Jef’s. “I walked in the cramped dressing room at the club and this guy with a white guitar was practicing flying up and down the fingerboard!”

Jef was loved by other artists because in addition to being a genuinely kind man, he was an amazing person to have in a band. “He had a great instinct for helping a songwriter to tell a story,” says Erik Johnson (EJ), the drummer of Huffamoose who often jammed and recorded with Jef. “He would reinforce the lyrical content with his guitar playing.”

Jef could feel where a song was going, and he always knew exactly what to play. “He had this intuition and this ear for listening and knowing where you were gonna go before you even did,” says Mitchell. “He was awesome like that.” Jef worked with artists to flesh out their ideas and bring them to life, and he gave his all to each project. It didn’t matter whose music he was embellishing; he simply loved experimenting with sound until the song conveyed how the artist felt.

Jef also had the ability to bring out the best in other artists. “His parts were so crystal clear,” says EJ, “that I would just know what to do.” Jef created vibes that everyone could latch onto but no one else could create. “He was very sensitive to nuances,” remembers EJ. “Sometimes a nuance that I would toss out casually, he would embrace. And a lot of musicians wouldn’t have even heard it.”

Jef once said that the best compliment he ever received was from George Duke. Duke told him, “I love having you in the band because I can go wherever I want to go, and you’ll keep things in line.” Jef said, “He’ll do what he does and I’ll go wherever I want – ’cause he knows I’ll go…” Artists trusted him to take their music places they had never even imagined because they knew he could do it, and they knew he would put the effort in to do it well.

“He joined my funk band, Gutbucket, and was crucial to how our sound developed,” says Adam Guth, a musician who loved Jef as both a bandmate and a friend. “His artistry was astounding … The musical gifts he gave us will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

 

“You can’t really talk about him (Jef) without mentioning Trish,” says JoAnne. In 1995, Jef married Patricia “Trish” Ann Valanty, his other half and his one true love.  She was a musician like him, playing multiple instruments including the saxophone and the flute, and she was one of the most caring and loving people he had ever met.

“If you talk about Jef, it’s almost like the phases of Jef,” says Glenn Barratt, six time Grammy-nominated mixer / engineer and owner of MorningStar Studios. “There were the early days before Trish, and then there was when he found Trish and married her. He was euphoric,” he says with a smile. “And then there was after Trish.” Trish died in a car accident in 2001, tragically altering Jef’s world.

“After Trish passed away, he (Jef) became really quiet.” says Huff. He was no longer the boisterous, hilarious Jef that his friends and family had always known; he was a tormented artist. “She had a huge effect on Jef’s life. Huge,” says JoAnne. “She was extremely significant to his development as a person and as a musician.”

After he lost Trish, Jef focused a lot of his depression and hopeless feelings into his music. “He was questioning why he was even still around,” remembers Barratt. “But he kind of realized that he was around to play music.” He used the loss as a way to define his existence and make his music meaningful. “He never really got over Trish,” says Huff, “so at his trio gigs, he was letting a lot of that out. He was expressing how he felt and letting out a lot of grief.” Jef’s music became so powerful that it no longer had boundaries; it was “just sound,” says Huff, coming from inside of Jef. “His emotion, passion, and extreme pain,” agrees Washington, “went back into his music.”

 

“Playing with his trio, playing his own music,” remembers Huff, “was nothing like anything else. When we played live, it was really more about exploring sound, improvising, and opening things up. It was astounding, the things that he would play. It just felt like I was carried along with him … The music would go everywhere.”

Whether he was in front of thousands of strangers or a few close friends, Jef always put his soul into his music. When he performed live, he would let the sound take control of him. “Jef was Jef when he was on stage making music,” says Barratt, especially when he was performing his own music. “I’ve done his trio a few times (with Michael Bland on drums),” says Washington, “and we’d take the music to crazy highs and lows! He was a true visionary.”

Jef loved performing his own music because “he really got to play what was in his head,” says Huff. “He got to explore, and I don’t think there were many other gigs where he got to do that.” It was always a trio with Jef because he needed room for each instrument to discover itself. His guitar solos alone would jam for more than a half hour for each song and fill venues with jazz progressions and blues notes. “In his tunes when he would take solos, he would tell amazing stories,” muses EJ. “You know, they didn’t always take the same kind of trajectory – sometimes he would start out burning from the first note; it just sort of represented where his mind was.”

Jef’s music was an experience, and it attracted other musicians, influencing their art. The song “Hype,” from Jef’s 2001 album Hype Factory, strikes EJ as particularly influential to soul music. Jef played all of the instruments on the track, and, as EJ points out, it demonstrates that “the whole revolution in the rhythmic gestures of ‘neo-soul’ consisted of things that Jef had been doing forever.” EJ views Jef as the catalyst for the movement in soul music that emphasizes guitars and keyboards lagging behind the beat. This development was popularized by D’Angelo and Questlove, but when describing its roots, EJ references “Hype.” “I have yet to play that song and have a room not react,” he says. “People are speechless.”

 

My family and I can’t talk about Jef without saying some variation of the words “Who are you making this for, man?” One evening after a recording session, my brother Christian was driving Jef home, and Jef went on a rant about a movie he had just seen. He discussed the cinematography, the script, and the special-effects, but the crux of his critique was “Who are they making this movie for, man?” He talked for over half hour about how the movie was both too modern and too old-fashioned to appeal to anyone; he could not understand the target audience.

But Jef never thought about his target audience. He understood that economic-driven businesses like filmmaking (and recording) required marketing plans, but when it came to creating his own music, he didn’t consider the opinions of others. He created over ten of his own albums, and each one became whatever he wanted it to be, regardless of the public’s demand.

JoAnne and Judy remember how when Jef was younger, he enjoyed performing magic tricks. He would attempt to do card tricks, and every time, something would go wrong. “But that never stopped him!” says JoAnne while laughing. “He would just keep doing them! It was awful for us, but he was having a great time.” Jef was never discouraged by an unreceptive audience. When he was passionate about something, he would see it through. “He was very curious, very experimental, and not to be denied,” says JoAnne, “which I think would show up later in his musical life.”

“I think his favorite genre was ‘Jef Lee Johnson,’” says EJ when asked to describe Jef’s playing. “He had this incredibly eclectic resource (his mind) that he could tap into at any moment,” he says, “and it didn’t hurt that he had the baddest groove on the planet. He was definitely the funkiest person I’ve ever known.” Jef’s music was unique to his tastes, a mix of blues, funk, and avant garde soul. “Authentic,” EJ calls it.

Jef was “authentic” in every sense of the word.  He was kind to everyone while still true to himself, and above all, he was true to his music.  After he passed away, over ninety guitars were found in his apartment, and they were all customized.  When Jef bought a guitar, he would immediately switch out the pickups, and that was the minimum alteration he would make.  He had to get the sound just right.  Additionally, he loved the visual arts, so he was constantly drawing or painting. He had one guitar that was completely covered in paint: beautiful designs that a friend of his had drawn and his own additions that he had incorporated after he and the friend had lost contact.  He loved each of his guitars, and he altered, painted, and shredded them so that they reached their full potential.

His instruments were a crucial aspect of the music he played.  Barratt remembers when Jef was a part of Paul Shaffer’s “World’s Most Dangerous Band” on Late Night with David Letterman. “The first thing that Paul Shaffer said to him (Jef) was ‘Go out and get a Strat and a Fender amp, and be here on Monday.’ And Jef said ‘no,’” says Barratt with a laugh. “He said ‘You just auditioned 999 guys with Strats and Fender amps, and you picked me. And this is what I play.’”

 

“I booked the last gig in December 2012 at the Blue Note in NYC,” says Stefany Calembert, Jef’s manager and good friend. “A lot of people told him ‘I will be there, I will come, See you there…’ Nobody came except 4-5 musicians/friends of his.”

“I saw him a day or two after that, and it was really the most down I’d ever seen him,” remembers Huff.  All Jef wanted was to share his music with the world, but he found it increasingly difficult to get people to listen. “I organized a tour in Europe for one week, and he was the happiest man ever,” says Calembert. “He said, ‘you are the first person that did that for my band.’ Nobody could book a week tour for him.”

His unique music appealed to a narrow market, but Jef was truly respected and loved by everyone with whom he came in contact. Even if the public didn’t know his name, musicians and artists praise him regularly. “They asked Esperanza Spalding in an interview, ‘who are your favorite artists?’ And she said Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Jef Lee Johnson,” remembers Barratt. “And everyone was like, who’s Jef Lee Johnson?”

“It was always a source of supreme frustration for him that he couldn’t get major label support for his own music,” says Guth. “He didn’t fit into the mold,” explains Washington. “He was much too big inside and forever real for that.”  But even though his music didn’t connect with a mainstream audience, it did still reach people. And the people that it touched have been completely changed.

“He was a teacher,” says Huff. “I am the musician I am today because of having known him and played music with him. I learned more from him than anybody else I ever played with over all my years… He was probably the most important influence on me and how I approached music.”

Jef would not accept praise or kindness, even though he so generously poured himself out for others.  Calembert remembers how when she offered to advance his next tour, he told her to first take care of herself and her family.  He told her not to think about him until then.  EJ feels that Jef could sense the goodness in people and that he gravitated towards the kindhearted. Based on the love that his friends express in his memory, he seems to be right.  When Jef became sick, Calembert wrote him a song, and the ending consists of her daughter, very young at the time, saying, “I love you Jef.”  Jef connected with all of his friends, and he truly found a place in each of their hearts.

Everyone has stories about how Jef has helped them.  Guth remembers when Jef was in LA playing some of his own gigs when an opportunity came up for Gutbucket to perform; “He bought a roundtrip plane ticket to come back to Philly for a gig that paid $25. Who does that?!” he exclaims. Jef was always there for the ones he loved, putting them before himself.  Now that he’s gone, his friends have made it their mission to put him first.

Huff put together a tribute gig for Jef after he passed, and Washington is putting together his own project in honor of the man he met shredding on a white guitar in a club’s dressing room. “If there’s one thing I can do for him,” says Washington, “it’s spread his music and words with my project, ‘Rainbow Shadow – A tribute to Jef Lee Johnson,’ so folks can know what a phenomenal and special human being they missed.”

“His music remains a testimony to his genius,” says Guth. “He used to say, ‘You watch, people will be talking about me when I’m dead.’ He was right. Buy all his music and play it for people so that his genius can continue to ripple through the world.”

His music will continue to play in the ears of everyone he met, and his kindness will continue to live in their hearts.  When people speak about Jef, they start off thinking that they don’t have much to say because they only knew him for so long.  Everyone, however, ends up talking for extended periods of time, praising the man who has become a legend.  If Jef were here today, he would probably ask me, “Devon, who are you writing this for, man?” I could say that I’m writing it for those who haven’t heard his music, but those people are already being tracked down by Jef’s friends who are holding tribute gigs as often as they can.  I could say that I’m writing it for many different audiences, but Jef always had a way of seeing the truth; he was “authentic.”

So Jef, let’s be honest. Who am writing this for? I’m writing it for you.

Rest in peace, Jef Lee Johnson.

Image © Olivier Lestoquoit, 2011

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Reggie Washington Casts a Rainbow Shadow on the Jazz World with his Tribute Album to Jef Lee Johnson - Rock On Philly

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