Philadelphia guitarist Jef Lee Johnson died on Monday night at Roxborough Memorial Hospital. He was 54. The list of people Johnson played with is staggering, from McCoy Tyner and Roberta Flack to Ronald Shannon Jackson and The Roots to Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin.
My obituary of Johnson is in the Wednesday Inquirer and here. The video below is of Johnson playing and talking music with bass player Chico Huff in 2012. The photo is by Jempi Samyn. More videos are here.
Johnson's death was deeply felt among the community of Philadelphia musicians. Here's what a few of them had to say.
James Poyser, record producer and keyboard player for The Roots: "Jef had the ability to play like anybody, but not everyone could play like him. He was at home in any setting. He seemed to always play exactly what was needed in any situation, but with a style that was absolutely his own: a funky cosmic slop-pot of blues/rock/jazz/bluegrass/gospel and much more, sent back in time from the future.
But as great as he was, he was one of the most humble, soft-spoken, funny, gracious musicians I've ever known. The virtuosity he had could have been intimidating, but he was quite the opposite. He always inspired and encouraged you to 'just play.'"
Aaron Levinson, Grammy winning producer who played with Johnson in Gutbucket and worked with him on the 2008 project Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson said this about why JLJ remained an underground legend better known to fellow musicians than the public at large: "Because 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 as well. We spent countless hours, playing, writing and rehearsing at my house, Jef's, Adam's and in rehearsal spaces and studios around the region. Every single moment of that time was pure magic and I will treasure it as long as I can draw a breath. 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."
Kevin Hanson, the guitarist formerly with Huffamoose who currently leads the Fractals and called Johnson "my mentor and guitar idol" had this story to tell: "I first saw Jef Lee in play 1992. I had recently moved to Philly from my hometown of Spokane, WA. A housemate suggested we hop on our bikes and go to a club called 40th Street Underground in W. Philly to see some crazy band. It was Gutbucket (Jef Lee, Ace Levinson, Ben Schacter, Adam Guth, Jamaaladeen Tacuma). The most raw, insanely funky and ripping music I'd ever heard live. What was coming from the stage brought my mind to a complete halt and shot me, like a cannon, into outer space. The guitar player was astounding. He was Hendrixy, but had a sound and a reach that I'd never heard before. Completely original, steeped in blues and sonically punishing. You could follow every line he played as if on a roller-coaster. Musically, I felt like I'd been handed a compass, but the needle was spinning out of control in every direction. And I wanted to follow it.
Erik Johnson (drummer) and I would listen to Jef's solo records in the back of the van on Huffamoose tours. Years later, I had my first gig with Jef, playing in Will Brock's band. I was very enamored and star-struck by him, and nervous as hell. During the first tune, Jef nodded at me to play the first solo. I gave it all I had. Then he took a solo. I felt two inches tall, but completely inspired. My ass was handed to me by his greatness. I started stealing everything I could from Jef's playing; his feel, his phrasing, his lines. Then I had the great honor of doing some recording sessions with Jef at Morningstar Studios. He was a master. His pocket and musical authenticity were mesmerizing. Jef was mysterious and could be dark and introspective. But he was incredibly humble and gracious. When he smiled, the whole world brightened. These encounters solidified for me the notion that true greatness was tempered with humility. I felt like he was no longer just my mentor and guitar hero, but a friend, and I am blessed to have known him."
A memorial service is being planned. Donations on behalf of the Jef Lee Johnson Scholarship Fund can be made to: Settlement Music School, Mary Louise Curtis Branch, 416 Queen Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147, Attn: Development Office.