Jef Lee Johnson, 54, underground Philly jazz legend

Posted: January 31, 2013

HIS PLAYING had been described as "ferocious," "salty" and a few other colorful adjectives.

The object of these descriptions was the greatest jazz guitarist you never heard of: Jef Lee Johnson. However, if you're a dedicated jazz fan, you might have caught him at any number of music venues in Philly over the years, mostly playing in groups, with or behind other musicians, hidden but eloquent.

You also might have heard his distinctive sound on numerous albums and solo discs, many of them starring other musicians. Once again, hidden but eloquent.

Jef Lee Johnson, born and raised in Germantown, died Monday in Roxborough Memorial Hospital of complications of pneumonia and diabetes. He was 54 and still lived in Germantown.

In a review of his album, "Black and Loud," last March, Inquirer reviewer Karl Stark called Johnson "a singular fellow."

"No one but Johnson, whose credits range from McCoy Tyner to Aretha Franklin to the David Letterman band, could have made this wide-ranging set of 19 originals and two covers.

"You get to listen here to the firings of his neural net. He uses guitar lines as artist Jackson Pollock might have.

"He melds dollops of funk, rock, blues and jazz into confections of sheer tunefulness or shrill effluent. Repetition is part of the hypnosis. And while his shaky voice is a cross between that of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder, that just gets you in the neighborhood."

Stark went on to say that only Johnson "could find the inner neurosis of Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti.' But being different has its own rewards."

"He was a strange, wonderful cat," said Philadelphia-based Aaron Levinson, Grammy-winning producer and musician. "He could do it all."

Levinson's most recent production was "Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson," comprising the music of the pioneering jazz guitarist who died in 1970.

Jef portrayed Lonnie Johnson on the album, lending his own unique musical twists to Lonnie's music. He said that he didn't want just to repeat what the other man had done.

In a portrait of Jef Johnson in the Philadelphia City Paper, A.D. Amorosi wrote: "Swampy blues, blissful avant-garde jazz, deep strange blues, dusky funk, Jef Lee Johnson does it all."

He quoted Aaron Levinson as saying, "Like Coltrane, Jef is inside the music. He plays from a place that is beyond notes, beyond technique."

Amorosi wrote that when he interviewed Jef for the City Paper article in 2010, "I found a humble genius before me, a guy who just wanted to work and read, a man not into the folderol of fame, but rather the intensity of each note."

Jef said that playing with McCoy Tyner, the legendary Philadelphia jazz piano player, known for being part of the John Coltrane Trio, taught him his guitar chops.

He grew up in Germantown and the Providence Baptist Church of Germantown, on E. Haines St., built by his grandfather, Roland C. Lamb Sr.

He did his first sessions on records at the age of 18 with the late Rev. James Cleveland, famed gospel singer and composer.

In his interview with Jef, Amorosi quoted him as saying, "I'm a cranky old guy now. My original thing was to be great. I wanted to be like Thelonious Monk, not to be famous. I wanted to be expansive musical infinity. To be famous is a whole other gene. Every time I tried to get famous, it died."

Information about survivors or funeral services was not immediately available.

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