My Friend, Jef Lee Johnson

I can’t remember the last time I had such a profound reaction to a guitar player than when I heard Jef Lee Johnson in 2010. Not in 30 years or more had a fellow guitarist made me feel like I had discovered the musical Holy Grail. Yes, I’d had lesser seismic stirrings as a kid upon hearing, Benson, Wes and Pat Martino, …but—this was the musical motherlode!

What struck me most as I delved into the world of Jef Lee Johnson, the vast body of work that is his musical legacy, is that it seemed limitless in its embodiment of all things Black Music. Much like the aesthetic itself, its extentions reached in and firmly gripped classic and acid rock, while titillating other styles as the free-spirited composer saw fit. And what a composer he was! Not bound in any way stylistically (within the aesthetic realm that he inhabited), his compositions always contained enough of him—his dreamy, thoughtful lyrics, Pop-defying musical idiosyncrasies, life-or-death urgency in feel or groove, authenticity to the style and deft guitar and bass playing—that no two songs, regardless of polarity, sounded out of place or in opposition.

I first heard Jef while trolling the web late one night. I stumbled on some guys playing a version of Herbie’s Watermelon man on the old Black Entertainment Television show, Studio Jams, where they would assemble random musicians… Who was this guitar player who seemed more interested in keeping his part nice and tight and was gently overseeing the band to make sure that the whole presentation was right? Then seemingly out of nowhere, he takes this most unassuming, yet most killing solo, playing a little of this and that and in the most personal way, saying a little something that any and everyone would want to play. From there I was just about hooked, so I downloaded his recording “Blue” (1995) and that sealed the deal. Fan for life! On that record, his first, there was anthem-rock, folksy, bottle-neck slide blues, single-line and chord solos over funky, jazz changes and more. A music critic’s dream or nightmare, depending on their intentions! Then and there he became my all-time favorite, all-around, genre-splitting guitarist. He played like, “aww, what the heck,” and to me, he sounded like everyone of the best of them would sound if they were all one and could be that free.

After checking out his bio (McCoy Tyner, Billy Joel, Quest Love, Chaka Khan, Erica Badu, Paul Shaffer’s David Letterman Band, Esperanza Spaulding, George Duke, Terrence Blanchard, DeAngelo, Stanley Clarke…) and speaking to my musician friends who travel in those circles, I felt like the odd man out. Why hadn’t anyone told me about him??!!! I proceeded to make up for lost time by acquiring several of his recordings under his own name. I’m only about halfway through with 6 or 7 records. Although his known recordings as a leader weren’t released until he was in his 30s, he managed to be quite prolific, releasing several ‘double-record’ sets, sometimes with as many as 30 songs.

There is so much of Jef Lee Johnson to discover musically—so many vistas he invites you to imagine and ideas to mull over. Over the past 3 years, I became intimately aware of these landscapes and airwaves of his, yet as with all great artists, his music always invites me to go deeper to find its newfound parts—his lyrics so vivid and so vast.

She’s got the whole thing covered,
all day, all night, all things to me
So much yet undiscovered,
as far as every eye can see

(from Hype Factory‘s, “Sky”)

When he died last year I felt as though I had lost a loved-one. It was really uncanny how deeply I felt the “loss” of somebody I’d never known, let alone never met. I kicked myself because I’d had an opportunity one summer earlier which I passed up on due to excuses. “I’ll meet him another time…”, I reasoned. The feeling of sadness seemingly would not go away that easily after he passed. And then one evening I eagerly sat down to read a newly republished, 12 page interview of his on the internet. Way into it on page 11, the interviewer asked how he got the gig with McCoy Tyner and Jef Lee went on to explain the circumstances and process, when he says “…McCoy was looking for a guitarist…Bobby Broom did a gig, I remember…” For the record, I have never, ever played with McCoy. But for me, reading that statement from him was the weirdest form of closure. It was as though the universe was telling me through him, it’s okay, it’s not over, we’ll meet again.

Thanks Jef Lee Johnson for being the best at accomplishing the purpose of music and for reminding me that great music cannot be measured in notes, words or accomplishments.

7 Comments on “My Friend, Jef Lee Johnson

  1. Man, can’t thank you enough for the new post. Just started listening to his stuff. Whew!

    Why is it we get corporate shills stuffed down our throat when true masters like Jef get nowhere near the love they deserve. Ha! listening to “TV People” as I write, and the man himself seemed to answer me. Pigs oinking on the fade out. Cool. Message delivered.

    He’s on my playlist exclusively for the next few days for sure, and in the general playlist for good. Thanks again for the post.

  2. I don’t quite remember how I heard about Jef or got interested in hearing his music. It might have been a video of him in a teaching situation followed by a jam with a bass player. Anyway, I only discovered his recorded works in the past year to year and a half. Bought Thisness and his CD of Bob Dylan covers. Love his ideas, phrasing and flat out abilities to make that guitar his own. I’m a record collector but not in the truest sense as I only collect music I like. I am not driven by the hits or popular tastes. I will probably buy Blue based on your mention of it. I absolutely don’t know how I missed this guy for all those years. I need to make up for lost time by getting a hold of several more records by Mr. Johnson. Thanks for your piece on an unheralded monster of a musician.
    A fan of the DBOT,
    D.W.C.

  3. Thanks so much for this, Bobby! So glad you mentioned JLJ’s lyric writing. So brilliant! He is deeply missed. We can only hope more people will hear his music and understand his genius.

  4. You said it brother. Two times! Since the study of Jef is now into at least its third semester at the graduate level, there is still so much more to know, not just for guitaristic purposes but because Jef validates so many beliefs that I hold and affirms so many of the principals that musical masters have always expoused.The simplist of which is when you blow your horn, your voice should be clear and explicit as a spiritual representation of self that I believe God intended. That voice should be true to you and have a unique signature like the scent of a baby mammal-detectable to its mother and family immediately at great distance in the dark or light. The qualities could be described as authentic and individualized not artificial duplicated and plagarized. Art Blakely was quoted as saying “don’t get up on stage and start lying”. Essentially he was saying ‘the stuff you were playing was’nt you”. Jef was’nt lying. Jimi want lying. Dexter was’nt lying. Bird was’nt lying. I struggle with the modern day musician who can reproduce lines and phrases from the most complex of artists, imitate and extrapolate with microtonal precision and leave me feeling cold as if I just underwent a complex medical procedure in a sterile laboratory. You found that in the glory days of jazz and in many cases since , imitation, soulless intellectual over soulful got a cymbal thrown at you! I remember when I first heard guitar played in my neighborhood, people no matter what the skill level, could play the simplest melody or phrase and their voice was instantly moving and stirring. I remember walking into a record store and immediately recognizing the sound of a friend of mine who had moved to New York and unbeknownst to me had recorded with a major artist. He was only playing the melody! Jef Lee had that ability as an strumentalist and vocalist for that matter. So much of what I have heard over the last few decades is vacant and studious leaving me wanting for what I heard and felt most if not all the time before internet lessons and programs to have you play like anybody in six easy lessons! Is there a “gain competence in tapping into and asserting your spiritual and soulful essence” lesson you can complete in a lifetime much less a 6-12 week seminar/master class? I often ask myself, if a bunch of mothers of musicians were gathered in a room and told they would be exposed to some fine musicians of the current generation, how many of those parents for instance would feel like tapping a foot, bobbing a head and clapping their hands. The real test would be recognizing their own child’s playing in the midst of pool of same instruments. I’m grateful for the influence of a Jef Lee because he returns the music to what it was intended to do and has the power to do. The earthy and primal appeal of delivering self through the music I believe has been substituted for something plastic and artificial. Schools, the internet, the spiritually and soulfully void all contribute to this musical tofu. As one of the wisest and musical persons who ever lived once told me-”that’s meat in that music in what you play and express. Just use the meat, the other stuff leaves you empty.”

  5. Wow, this was like discovering a new continent on Earth. Thanks, Bobby.

  6. Bobby, Just wanted to say that this post about Jef struck a deep chord in me. I was blessed to have known Jef as a dear friend & I cannot even attempt to describe, as you did so eloquently here what it was like to discover Jef & his musical world, what it was like for me as a composer to have Jef interpret my music & to have made a lot of music with him. He embodied so much music & like you said, reminded you that “great music cannot be measured in notes, words or accomplishments.” He is so dearly missed man…
    Again, thank you & peace to you for expressing so well…
    Rob Reddy