Music, Truth, Love and a Tribute to Jef Lee Johnson…with Reggie Washington

Reggie Washington 4

He gives the music a sturdy and funky floor – with his bass keeping the bottom, Reggie Washington’s playing is spare yet each note necessary. In “Fall,” guitarist David Gilmore plays a high-register melody, adding climbing chords punctuated by falls of his own, then the percussionist inserts crashes and rolls. Reggie provides the song with its footing, and by the end of the song, he’s got his own solo that bubbles up like warm lava.

Originally studying the cello in school, Reggie’s string sensibility didn’t go to waste when he switched (unwillingly at first) to electric bass. His playing is mature, confident, fun and groovy.

His musical motivation for the past several years has been to lovingly honor guitar brother/singer/songwriter Jef Lee Johnson, who was also Reggie’s friend. And now, at two volumes in, Reggie says there’s even enough material for a third CD. Why not? Nobody does a tribute with more funk and affection than Reggie.

When and why did you pick up the bass?

I was sort of tricked into playing acoustic bass in the orchestra when I was 14 years old, but I was messing with the electric bass since around 12 years old. They needed bass players so they asked me to fill in while they did auditions. I was happy playing in the cello section.

Twenty years later I found out one of my teachers told the conductor to switch me to bass because I’d be of more use there. He knew I’d bring the bass home and learn the parts. He was right.   

What did your music education consist of?

In New York from 7th grade I was in orchestra class or string ensemble under various string teachers. Every Saturday (’73-’80) I was traveling to either Boro-Wide or All-City Orchestra in Manhattan. I was at the front of the section or the principal of either the cello section (in Boro-Wide) or bass section (in All-City). Every Sunday I had private cello lessons with John Voss and Jon Kneiling and then Wednesday nights I had private bass lessons at The Henry Street Settlement with Sal Cuevas and Victor Venegas (Afro-Cuban), and then Paul West (jazz). I got assorted scholarships along the way to play in Youth Symphony and All-State Orchestras.

I was around professional musicians frequently in my youth.      

Early career- what was one of the first important lessons you learned about performing?

Relax and have some fun. I was taking up so much time trying to make things “perfect”! Perfection is overrated when it comes to music. A mistake can help you find something truly special in the music. I had to let it all go and let the music flow! 

Why do you feel able to express yourself best through the bass?

The bass for me is the catalyst of/for/in the music! I love to support the musical flow. The bass is the ultimate supporter! A fat note can go a long way and lack of that note changes the entire fabric/flavor/color of the music. I love the feeling when injecting the song with something unexpected (i.e., a note that’s NOT the root of the chord played) or a change in dynamics.   

Why was Jef Lee Johnson [guitarist, singer, songwriter who passed in 2013] such an inspiration to you?

We got to know each other in the later years of our friendship (we met in 1986). He played for the music and gave what was necessary for the music to shine. If that meant playing one note, he made that one note the best note it could be. “Play for the music. No more, no less, no bullshit.”

How was Vol. 1 of “Rainbow Shadow” received?

I was very pleased to see people believed in what we’re trying to do.

This project is coming from the heart, a labor of love for a fallen friend.

The audiences have felt that sincerity. I’m encouraged that we can still accomplish this in the music. Blues guitar legend James “Blood” Ulmer said to a group of musicians at breakfast after the Son d’Hiver festival in Paris, “What’s the sense of doing this thing of music if you’re not saving a soul?”

Music heals. It has the power to change the feelings and thoughts of a large amount of people…quickly.

The Most High has given us the power to send a positive message through music. And of course it’s used to send a negative message too. Folks need to be aware of this. All I can do is send my positive message and hope folks listen.    

When was Vol. 1 released?

It was released worldwide June 1st 2015.

When was Vol. 2 released?

We just released it in physical CD and the digital download on December 1st 2017. It’s the perfect gift!

Why did you create a Vol. 2 – was there more to say?

There was definitely more to say! I have a list of JLJ favorites.

We’ve recorded Vol. #1 and #2 from that. I could do #3.    

What made you decide to dedicate two albums to him, and what were some of the highlights of the process? 

There is so much great music composed by Jef Lee. Also it’s been therapy since he passed away in 2013. I gave everyone in the band (Marvin Sewell, guitar; DJ Grazzhoppa, turntables; and Patrick Dorcéan, drums) creative freedom to contribute with one or more tunes. Everything is our re-interpretation of Jef’s tunes. We did a couple of rehearsals but we did major exploring on the bandstand.

The band recorded at the end of the tour when the music was fresh and sharp. The main part of the recording was at Da Town Studios in Marseille, France with engineer Ulrich Edorh. I then sent out WAV mixes to people we’re close with and/or who had respect for Jef and wanted to share in our project – fellow artists like Ronny Drayton, Federico Gonzalez Peña, Monique Harcum, Jimi Hazel, Hervé Samb, John Massa and Taboo.

Talk about the band members and the strengths they bring; and the use of the turntable as an instrument?

Patrick Dorcéan was one of last drummers (with Michael Bland) to play in Jef’s trio. Jef met him in one of my first projects using a turntable in “Music of the Phrase.”

Doing this project to play Jef’s music holds a special place in Pat’s heart. It’s a great feeling to have a band member with that kind of passion and musicianship with me on this project.

Guitarist Marvin Sewell and Jef were admirers of each other’s guitar work. Marvin’s admiration for Jef and his unique approach to the guitar has made the project all the more special.    

I can’t tell you exactly how many, but I know Graham Haynes, Branford Marsalis, Marcus Miller and Gary Thomas have used a DJ in their ensembles. When used in the right way it can bring added nuance to the music. Turntablist DJ Grazzhoppa is the samples and sounds of Jef Lee aka Rainbow Crow. Grazz isn’t a “sideshow.” He is used as a keyboard would be used. Since we also use background vocal segments, isolated guitar riffs and chords from all of Jef’s 14-CD discography, we keep him alive and present in the music. 

Does one compose for turntable or it’s improv each time?

I’ve given Grazzhoppa concepts and ideas to find his place in the music.

There’s a percentage of composition by me, but Grazz improvises within the group concept. He does what a lot of DJ’s don’t do; complement and support the music in a group setting.

Where did you go in your head to re-interpret Jef’s music? Were your band members equal partners in their own interpretations?

I had some things already formulated in my head. For the others, I asked everyone for their input, got it all together and used everything we could.

Where are you touring for Vol. 2?

Jammin’ Colors Management has us touring Europe in February 2018 in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Barcelona, Aíx en Provence, Girona…and more on the way. This time around I’ll have guitarist David Gilmore making the tour instead of Marvin Sewell.

What are the major differences from Vol. 1 to Vol. 2, stylistically?

It’s just a continuation of a healing thought. We’re going in the same direction. The concept is stronger since the band has come together plus the world events (Trump, terrorism, global warming, etc.) have influenced us too. Volume #2 is another chapter in a project. I plan to create more volumes.   

Are both CDs largely improvisatory?

Most of the songs we improvise on, but there are definite forms and guidelines to the music. The CD takes you on a trip and tells a story.   

Your press kit talks about the “geo-political climate.” Do you think jazz can bridge the gap between polar-opposite ideologies?

It could. The only thing we can do as artists/musicians is to spread a positive word and energy to try to bring as many people together as possible. Change begins in numbers. Change won’t happen without love for one another. I try to spread the love through music! 

Who are your other musical influences?

That’s a hard question. There have been many influences over my years of my development. My family (immediate and extended), Chico Hamilton, Ron Carter, James “Blood” Ulmer, Mor Chiam, Marcus Miller, Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake, Branford Marsalis, Jimmy Ponder and Jean-Paul Bourelly, to name a few. The influence has come from words of wisdom, stories of the forefathers and witnessing some of these musicians in their greatness on stage.   

How do you “marry” jazz, funk and world?

To me, they’re all the same…kind of. They make you move and feel good. It’s easy to “marry” them. They all come from the same place, the heart.

What is the distinguishing characteristic of Senegalese rhythm that you refer to?

I was referring to a certain musical emotion coming from guitarist Hervé Samb. He plays with a sense of urgency and excitement. I wanted to capture that emotion in the song on Volume #2 titled “Cake.”

What are some of your favorite venues and cities to perform?

I don’t have a favorite. I haven’t played in all of them yet. I’ve gotten warm receptions from many venues (big and small) worldwide.

They are ALL special because these places help us spread the music to all who want to listen. One of my favorites for over 30 years is the New Morning Club in Paris, France. The club has been the host of some great music and I’m very proud to be on that list!  

Where would you like to perform that you have not yet?

I’d love to perform at Madison Square Garden in New York City. I’d also like to play at all of the Blue Note clubs in the world.

Plans for 2018 – touring, marketing, new writing?

I have a bunch of cool stuff coming up in 2018! A few tours with Rainbow Shadow through Europe, a trio project with legendary drummer Mike Clark and saxophonist Rick Margitza and a tour/recording project with my Jazz Quartet featuring Jacques Schwarz-Bart, Bobby Ray Sparks and E.J. Strickland. I’m also involved in the 3rd CD recording of singer Lisa Simone.

I’m going to be writing new music all winter and spring. I’m busy creating and I love it!   

Other comments?

I wanted to say: Money won’t make you happy.

Stay free in your art. Don’t get caught in the hype!

Love for the music will always come through…sooner or later.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Reggie Washington. Photos (c) David Crunelle.

© Debbie Burke 2017


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