Jef Lee Johnson – American Musician, Unrecognized Genius
Thoughtful, curious and sensitive, these qualities would prove to be the foundation of a musical career that would encompass the best of many worlds of Jef Lee Johnson. Although many saw Jef as a career “session man,” those who knew him understood that Jef, like many of his peers, was a “working musician” – an amazing craftsman who “paid the mortgage” by enhancing other people’s projects. Because of his musical intelligence and talent, Jef created a career that resulted in his performing and/or recording with a wide-ranging and prominent group of musicians:
Ronald Shannon Jackson
In the mid-’80s Jef did a stint as the lead guitarist in Paul Shaffer’s “World’s Most Dangerous Band,” the house band for “Late Night With David Letterman”. Jef also had the distinction of being the only man on the planet to have played with McCoy Tyner and Sister Sledge on the same day in different locations.
Born in Philadelphia on June 26, 1958, Jef was raised in a musical family, the youngest of five children and the recipient of early influences as diverse as Herb Alpert, Eric Dolphy, Motown, Sergio Mendes, Leonard Bernstein and Vanilla Fudge. Jef’s musical beginnings took root in this musical hodge-podge.
“When I was around 12, I think, I begged my older sister to teach me some chords on guitar. And then when I was 13, my mother made me start playing with her in church, whether I liked it or not. Playing bass in church – I didn’t know how to play; she said, ‘You’re just gonna follow me.’ I didn’t know what I was doing; I was just making weird noises.”
And in television…
“I was just listening to television. Like, you know, cartoon music. ‘Johnny Quest,’ the Warner Bros. stuff. Anything that had a guitar in it, I would gravitate to. So, like ‘Hee Haw,’ Roy Clark and Buck Owens… I’m talking commercials. I’m talking ‘Miller High Life, the Champagne of Bottled Beers.’ The little jingles. I was really into them. Not even the [hit] songs, the jingles – Celia Cruz did the ‘Miller’ song, or Tony Bennett.”
Discovering ’70s fusion and then electric blues as a teenager, Jef was inspired to take up guitar in earnest, taking lessons at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia and playing in “basement bands” with his friends, accompanying a female vocal trio, “The Sparkling Diamonds”, in North Philly bars, and “tuning” his ears in local music venues with jazz bands Reverie and Gutbucket and local R&B bands Sister Sledge, Blue Magic, Archie Bell & The Drells and The Flamingos.
“My theory teacher would say, when I was a teenager, ‘Yeah, your ear was developing; you didn’t even realize it.’”
Jef moved on to New York to take session work and live gigs. It was while working with avant-garde jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s band, The Decoding Society, in the early ’90s, that Jef came to the attention of Jackson’s A&R man, who signed him to a solo deal. This deal spawned Jef’s first album, 1996′s Blue, which was compiled from several years’ worth of one-man band demo cassettes. Described in some circles as “subversive, indie-pop funk,” Blue’s daring and extreme musical variety -- ranging from its glowing acoustics to psychedelic-funk passages -- made Jef’s music difficult to pigeonhole, a situation that would last throughout his career. Jef’s subsequent solo albums are equally wide-ranging affairs, veering from straightforward pop songs to guitar-noise experiments that recall both Sonny Sharrock and Sonic Youth.
“I mean, the people that ask me to play hire me because I’m either peculiar or disciplined enough to try to keep their music together without needing the badges or awards that go along with it. One of the best compliments I ever had is George Duke saying, ‘Yeah, man, I love having you in the band because I can go wherever I want to go, and you’ll keep things in line.’ Or he’ll do what he does and I’ll go wherever I want, ’cause he knows I’ll go…”
Jef’s powerful and original musical statements often found him referenced in conversations that included guitar heavy-weights Jimi Hendrix and Lonnie Johnson, an artist Jef would later cover in a tribute project “Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson”. When describing the project in an interview, Jef’s words could have been used to describe his own music…
“There was some fiery music, there was jazz, there was blues. He [Lonnie] was playing everything at once. I guess he was dying to get it out…”
Aaron Luis Levinson, the Grammy Award–winning producer of Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson, stated simply that Jef “was literally unlike anyone else that ever played the guitar.”
In Europe, Jef would enjoy the solo recognition that eluded him in the states, finding appreciation from European audiences based on his own merit and musical skills. When asked to explain the difference in European and American approach to the music business explained:
“It’s what’s not going on, which is a lot of meetings and stuff that’s holding up the artistic process. If they [Europeans] hear something they like, if they hear something they feel, then they just go check it out; they’ll support it. Here it’s about hype. Use that Eisner theory: if Disney owns the billboards, if Disney owns the television show, and if Disney owns the magazines, and are constantly putting up this thing, this thing, this thing, this thing, then people [say], ‘This thing must be great because I keep seeing it everywhere.’ Over there [Europe] you can go play because people like you, and they’ll come see you and they’ll tell somebody else.”
With the support of Jef’s Belgium-based management company, Jammin’ Colors, he was able to establish a well-received and identifiable presence on the European music scene as well as working collaboratively with musicians Reggie Washington and Jean-Paul Bourelly, creating the music project “Ursus Minor” with Tony Hymas and recording “News From the Jungle”, with Sonny Thompson and Michael Bland.
Despite lack of widespread exposure in the states, Jef’s music found its way to American television with his original composition “Jungle” being featured in an episode of the show “Homicide” in 1998. Two others, “You Walk You Crawl” and “Silence No Secret,” were part of the soundtrack for the mini-series “Kingpin” in 2003. Jef would go on to compose and produce 11 more solo albums, playing everything including guitar, bass, keyboards, sax, drums, harmonica. He also proved to be a surprisingly compelling vocalist, infusing his music with creative and complex harmonies.
Jef would continue to play and tour on both sides of the Atlantic, culminating in an extended road tour with jazz star Esperanza Spalding, as part of her Radio Music Society from 2011 to 2013.
An excellent artist and avid photographer, Jef utilized these outlets to design and create his album artwork and to document his travels on the road. During his career, his stunning talent and unique ability to merge genres and blend styles was often overshadowed by the “name” acts he supported however when Jef died on January 28th 2013, he quietly stepped into his own spotlight – a spotlight that is both impressive and inspiring in its impact.
“So, we are doing something that people are feeling. And that’s all I’m concerned about. It’s like I’m just nudging you, instead of just telling you something. That’s really what I want to do.”