Selections from "I REMEMBER JEFFREY"
By Buddy W. Smith
Edited by W. Forbis
The following selections are taken from Buddy Smith's 1988 biographical tome, "I Remember Jeffrey" detailing Mr. Smith's long fellowship with the misunderstood jazz composer/improviser, Jeffrey Johnson. Done mostly in journal form, the book covers Johnson's early years as a struggling boxer/ethnomusicologist to his later triumphs as the tenor slide whistle for the outstanding Red Rover quintet. The book also talks at length of Johnson's being the first black man to be invited into the Ku Klux Klan (then Grand Dragon, Sam Marshall, said of Johnson's 1979 album, "Sonic Freedom", "It far exceeds the atonal framework laid down by Stravinski and Shoenberg, rising to a new harmonic plateau.") and continues to Johnson's eventual deportation and mysterious death in the Baltic Sea. As coroner Sam Tanaka mused, "Even with the amount of alcohol in his system, Johnson should have been able to swim for another three days." The various improbabilities with the official explanations of Johnson's death led the National Organization of Apricot Farmers to conduct their own investigation, in which they concluded that Jeffrey Johnson was killed by a splinter group of the Libertarians.
The following selections, direct from Smith's typewriter, show his intense devotion and respect for the man Richard Nixon once called "The greatest (expletive deleted) atonal composer I (expletive deleted) know!" (To which Johnson is rumored to have replied, "Dick, we both know I'm the only (expletive deleted) composer you know.)
Jan 10th, 1972 New York City (At the time, Buddy Smith was studying creative writing at the Abdual Kahari Institute for Literary Studies on the Lower East Side. It was at this point that he first met Johnson.)
"I met the most marvelous colored person today at the local bowling alley. He came up to me asked for a "cup of drool." It turned out that he was challenging me to a game of pool, but it will be quite a while before I'm used to this street vernacular. We played several games and I lost twenty dollars. Then we got into a conversation about the impressionistic painters that was fascinating, though he did have some rather unkind things to say about Monet. I must see him again."
June 27th, 1972
"After many months I ran into Jeffrey again (the Negro chap from the bowling alley.) He told me oh his newest musical project involving himself, a bass player and several stray alley cats. They have a show in the Village coming up soon that I must be present for. Jeffrey also tells me that he is experimenting with the sonic vibrations emitted by goldfish. (One of the many examples of how ahead of his time Johnson was.-ed) What an individual!"
July 16th 1972
"I saw Jeffrey's show and it was a smashing success! His unit of free form improvisorios captivated the audience from the start. Towards the end, I even got up and jammed with the group on a slow blues. My instrument of choice was the accordion. I've never played one, but Jeffrey encouraged me by falling on the floor and shrieking.
On the down side, I may not get my creative writing degree. It seems I forgot to take the gym requirement."
Dec 10th, 1972
"Oh how injurious life can be. Jeffrey says he is moving to Los Angeles to become a pornographic film actor. "The field is wide open, man." Jeffrey tells me. "Especially for someone with my endowments." But I feel that Jeffrey is neglecting his true muse and decline his offer to travel with him, though he is certain he can get me a job as a key grip/set designer. I am young and not used to these disappointments in life."
(Through the years 1973-1976, Buddy loses touch with Johnson. Buddy suffers through a painful marriage and an even more painful career as a stenographer. Finally, in late 1975, reeling from depression, he moves to San Francisco. In 1976, by pure chance, he is reunited with Johnson.)
Jan 27, 1976
"Joy is with me! I ran into my old friend Jeffrey Johnson today. I was stepping out of the local market when he attempted to rob me. Once we recognized each other, we exchanged pleasantries. Over coffee, we discussed the turns our lives have taken. Like myself, Jeffrey was briefly married, to an Italian performance artist with a preoccupation for marmalade over their entire apartment. "I mean everywhere," as Jeffrey puts it. "The goddamn cat was stuck to the ceiling"
I tell Jeffrey that he should return to atonal compositions, where his true talent lies. He replied in that wonderfully sagelike way, "Yeah, maybe. You gonna eat that crumbcake?"
March 13th, 1976
"Charming news. After playing two shows, Jeffrey's new quartet were asked to score a new play being put on by a local theater company. The play documents the life and times of Stan Freberg, the renowned satirist. It's titled, cleverly enough, "Play it again, Stan!" The only fault with the performance is that Freberg himself has officially denounced it, taking offense at the ending in which he falls in a volcano and dies. The director, Jean Paul Poulet, caustically defends his finale, saying that Freberg may one day do this. Some people are so prickly when artistic license is taken with their lives.
For the score, Jeffrey has decided to play the complete works of Cole Porter backwards. Unfortunately, one of Porter's tunes, when played in this fashion, sounds remarkably like the national anthem of Swaziland."
May 24th, 1976
"Jeffrey showed his dark side today at a local gathering of the artistic community. While we positioned near the bar, the bartender a patron next to us a very powerful drink called "Liquid Death." "Why not?" the fellow replied. "I'll try anything once." Thereby Jeffrey grabbed the man and said, "I hate that expression! Would you try sword swallowing once? Or how about swimming through lava?! I didn't think so pipsqueak!"
The man, visibly shaken, turned out to be an A&R representative. He quickly offered Jeffrey a recording contract. Timing is everything in this business."
(Over the next two years, Johnson releases twenty-four jazz, atonal, and blues albums and one interpretation of the Broadway musical, "Pippen." The critical reactions are cool but Johnson is happy with his output. Buddy and Jeffrey grow closer, prompting him to say to his compatriot one afternoon, "You are like a brother to me... except you're skinny and white!"
The following entry deals with Johnson's critical appraisal.)
Aug 26, 1978
"Following the release of Jeffrey's BEST OF collection, a local critic derided it saying that he "couldn't understand the music." All of us, "all of us" being the group that makes up Jeffrey's court of disciples, or maybe harem, jumped on the critic saying that if he couldn't understand it, he was "too stupid!" But then Jeffrey said, "It's okay man... I don't understand the shit myself."
I remember laughing, I mean laughing on the inside. We still have so much to learn."
(This final entry occurs after Johnson's death in 1981. Buddy Smith is distraught over the demise of his closest friend yet determined to carry on his legacy.)
Jan 12, 1981
"Jeffrey's funeral was a moving experience. Thousands of fans mourned his passing including Steve Allen and a young musician named Edward Van Halen. I think Jeffrey's father said it best is his eulogy, when he stated "Jeffrey was the most talented jazz improviser around next to Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Herb Ellis, Ornette Coleman and a long list of others." Joe Pass praised Jeffrey's early work with detuned guitars. Ringo Starr proudly stated that, "There would have been no Beatles without Jeffrey Johnson. Of course he was entirely unknown in our heyday, but we were affected by him nonetheless. So, hey, where's the wine?" Mr. Starr was removed when he was unable to provide an invitation.
The world has lost a great man. But I shall not forget..."
(Buddy Smith devoted the years up until his unfortunate imprisonment to making the world aware of the gigantic contribution that Jeffrey Johnson made to music. In 1990, the first Jeffrey Johnson Memorial Festival was held in Ishtar, Oregon, furthering Johnson's name and unfortunately, destroying the town. The festival has become an annual pastime for many of Johnson's fans, who would like to say, if nothing else, "Where's the wine!")