Joey DeFrancesco, who reigned as jazz’s undisputed ace for more than 30 years and brought the wonderfully enveloping sound of the Hammond B-3 organ roaring back into the mainstream in the early 1990s, passed away on Thursday. He was 51. His manager and wife, Gloria DeFrancesco, posted an announcement of his passing on social media without giving a reason.
As early as the age of 17, when his eye-catching debut was issued on Columbia Records, few jazz musicians in any era have ever dominated the musical vocabulary and popular image of an instrument the way DeFrancesco did with the organ. At the keyboard, he displayed unmatched technical mastery as his right hand reeled off notes in long ribbons.
He also made the most of the aural possibilities offered by an organ console, with its drawbars, switches, and pedal board; his organ could abruptly shift timbres and textures in the middle of a phrase or lurch from an ambient hum to a sanctified holler. Jimmy Smith, who was his idol and closest comparable, also unveiled new horizons on the instrument. DeFrancesco, like Smith, was emotionally evocative with his music and consistently connected with listeners with a soulful, blues-based message.
Along with bebop and the blues, he also spoke the modal dialects used by pianists like McCoy Tyner and organist Larry Young. With his brilliant brand of brilliance, DeFrancesco collaborated with artists as diverse as Miles Davis, whose band he joined as a high school senior, to Van Morrison, with whom he just released two albums. For Jimmy, Wes, and Oliver, Christian McBride’s 2020 album that won the Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album in April, features him extensively.
A Brotherly Love Reunion: Joey DeFrancesco Explores His Origins. DeFrancesco produced almost 30 albums on his own, some of which implicitly honor great forebears like Smith and Jack McDuff. Other recordings included a variety of like-minded artists, both young and elderly, such as the masters of the tenor saxophone Pharoah Sanders, George Coleman, Houston Person, and Illinois Jacquet.
DeFrancesco showcases his own prowess on tenor saxophone, trumpet, keyboards, and vocals in his most recent album, More Music. According to McBride, the presenter of NPR’s Jazz Night in America, “He had nothing left to prove on organ.” “He probably picked up the trumpet and saxophone for that reason. I warned him that we’d disagree if he ever picked up the bass instrument.”
Like McBride, who spoke with DeFrancesco for a 2019 installment of Jazz Night in America, he continued to have a strong connection to Philadelphia even after moving away. According to Pat Martino, a guitar legend who got his start playing with a legendary generation of jazz organists in Philly, this was partially caused by the city’s rich organ combo legacy (with Bill Milkowski). DeFrancesco is described in the book as “an outstanding artist” by Martino, who passed away last year.
Martino also said of DeFrancesco: “As a player, he’s simply ferocious, in that spirit of Jimmy Smith and all the great Philly organists.” Joseph DeFrancesco, who was born on April 10, 1971, in Springfield, Pennsylvania, was destined to be a musician. His grandfather and namesake, Joseph DeFrancesco, had played saxophone and clarinet during the swing era of the 1930s in upstate New York; his father, known as “Papa” John DeFrancesco, played organ on the Philadelphia jazz scene. Johnny, his older sibling, plays the blues guitar.
When Joey was four years old, he moved on to his father’s organ, which hulked in the house whenever it wasn’t set up for a residency at a club. Joey first began hammering on a toy piano. Along with his father, he also received instruction from well-known organists Shirley Scott and Trudy Pitts. Joey’s father took him to the Settlement Music School when he was nine years old; the institution has a long history of developing young talent. Lovett Hines, the band’s director, recalls that when Joey was a young child, his feet wouldn’t touch the ground when he sat on the piano bench. The band was primarily made up of high school students.
Hines, who maintained contact with DeFrancesco throughout the years, remembers that “he was a terror at the organ.” You might be able to outperform him on trumpet or tenor, but as soon as he sat down at the organ, the game was over. DeFrancesco performed at Gert’s Cocktail Lounge on South Street, where a jam session took place every Monday night when he was just 10 years old. Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone and “Philly” Joe Jones on drums were regulars.
Joey was already a local superstar as a middle schooler by the time McBride met DeFrancesco at Settlement Music School a few years later, according to McBride. “He was 13 and I was 12. We were the band’s youngest members.” McBride, drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel were classmates of DeFrancesco at Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
His performance at the inaugural Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition intrigued George Butler, a producer, and A&R executive at Columbia, and he became the first member of his peer group to sign a record deal. The Free Spirits, a fusion band featuring guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Dennis Chambers, was one of the later roles he played outside of the conventional organ combo. He also managed to draw other musicians into his zone; for example, on the 1995 album After the Rain with renowned drummer Elvin Jones, DeFrancesco discovered a foot-tapping groove even with McLaughlin.
DeFrancesco had a strong interest in “spiritual jazz” in recent years, which he defined as jazz with a seeking quality and a wider harmonic spectrum, extending from Sanders to Sun Ra. His investigation of the organ was the same as it always had been. In 2019, he admitted to Philadelphia Weekly, “I’ve always been pushing the limits of the instrument from day one.” Although I have my influences, no one has ever played the organ in the manner that I do.
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