Joey DeFrancesco, who reigned as jazz’s undisputed ace for more than 30 years, passed away on Thursday. In the early 1990s, he brought the wonderfully enveloping sound of the Hammond B-3 organ roaring back into the mainstream. He was 51. His manager and wife, Gloria DeFrancesco, sent a message on social media announcing his passing but did not give a reason. Few jazz musicians have ever dominated an instrument’s musical language and cultural image the way DeFrancesco did with the organ, beginning as early as the age of 17 when his eye-catching debut was issued on Columbia Records.
He displayed unmatched technical mastery at the keyboard, firing off notes with his right hand. And he made the most of the aural opportunities provided by an organ console, with its drawbars, switches, and pedal board; his organ might suddenly lurch from a background hum to a holy cry, or change timbres and textures in the middle of a phrase. He unveiled new horizons on the instrument, much as his hero and closest counterpart Jimmy Smith.
Like Smith, DeFrancesco’s music was emotionally expressive and consistently connected with listeners through a soulful, blues-based message. His vocabulary included the modal dialects of pianists like McCoy Tyner and organists like Larry Young in addition to bebop and the blues. From Miles Davis, whose band DeFrancesco joined as a high school senior, to Van Morrison, with whom he recently collaborated on two albums, his brilliant style of virtuosity attracted colleagues
He has a significant role in Christian McBride’s 2020 album For Jimmy, Wes, and Oliver, which in April received the Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. About 30 of DeFrancesco’s own recordings were produced, some of which implicitly honored great forebears like Smith and Jack McDuff. A variety of like-minded musicians, both young and old, were included on other recordings, including the masters of the tenor saxophone Illinois Jacquet, George Coleman, Houston Person, and most recently Pharoah Sanders.
On his most recent album, More Music, DeFrancesco shows off his prowess on the tenor saxophone, as well as the trumpet, keyboards, and vocals. He had nothing left to prove on the organ, according to McBride, the host of Jazz Night in America on NPR. “I believe that’s why he started playing the trumpet and saxophone. I warned him that if he ever picked up the bass, we’d fight!” He maintained close ties to his hometown of Philadelphia even after moving away, much like McBride, who spoke with DeFrancesco for a 2019 installment of Jazz Night in America.
In his 2011 autobiography, Here and Now, guitar legend Pat Martino—who got his start playing with a legendary generation of jazz organists in Philly—implied that this was partly because of the city’s rich organ combo legacy (with Bill Milkowski). DeFrancesco was praised in the book by Martino, who passed away last year, who called him “an outstanding artist” and said of him, “As a player, he’s simply fierce, in the lineage of Jimmy Smith and all the great Philly organists.”
On April 10, 1971, Joseph DeFrancesco was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, and music was in his blood. His namesake, Joseph DeFrancesco, performed saxophone and clarinet in upstate New York during the swing era of the 1930s. His father, John DeFrancesco, often known as “Papa,” played the organ in the Philadelphia jazz scene. Blues guitarist Johnny is his older sibling.
When Joey was four years old, he went from pounding on a toy piano to playing his father’s organ, which hulked in the house whenever it wasn’t set up for a residency at a club. Joey first began playing music on a toy piano. He received instruction not just from his father but also from well-known organists like Shirley Scott and Trudy Pitts. When Joey was nine years old, his father enrolled him in the Settlement Music School, a local institution with a strong history of fostering young talent.
Lovett Hines, who remembers that Joey was so young that his feet wouldn’t touch the ground when he sat at the piano bench, conducted the band, which was primarily made up of high school students. Hines, who kept in touch with DeFrancesco throughout the years, remembers that “he was a terror at the organ.” If you played trumpet or tenor, you might be able to beat him, but as soon as he sat down at the organ, it was game over.
At Gert’s Cocktail Lounge on South Street, which hosted a jam session every Monday night, DeFrancesco performed his first professional gig when he was just 10 years old. Regulars included drummer “Philly” Joe Jones and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley. A few years later, when McBride first encountered DeFrancesco at Settlement Music School, “Joey was already a local superstar as a middle schooler,” the singer recalls. “I was 12 and he was 13. In the band, we were the newest members.”
McBride, drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel were among his classmates at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where DeFrancesco also attended. He was the first member of his peer group to sign a record deal after George Butler, a producer, and A&R executive at Columbia was pleased by his performance at the inaugural Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition.
The Free Spirits, a fusion band with guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Dennis Chambers, was one of the many settings in which he eventually worked in addition to the conventional organ combo. Even with McLaughlin, DeFrancesco was able to draw people into his zone; this was most evident on the 1995 album After the Rain, which he recorded with the great drummer Elvin Jones.
DeFrancesco has recently developed a keen interest in what he refers to as “spiritual jazz,” which includes artists like Sanders and Sun Ra and has a seeking feel and a wider harmonic spectrum. His investigation of the organ was conducted in the same manner as always. He started to Philadelphia Weekly in 2019 that “I’ve always been pushing the limits of the instrument since day one.” Nobody has played the organ the way I do, notwithstanding my influences.