Readers Poll Winner / Saying Goodbye to Joey DeFrancesco

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The world of Hammond B-3 jazz organ will now be measured in terms of pre- and post-Joey DeFrancesco.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

The world of Hammond B-3 jazz organ will now be measured in terms of pre- and post-Joey DeFrancesco. The influential keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist died on Aug. 25 at age 51 from a massive heart attack.

His passing gave DownBeat readers one last opportunity to honor him as Organist of the Year.

A generational talent, DeFrancesco was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, on April 10, 1971, to “Papa” John and Laurene DeFrancesco. Papa, a railroad electrician by day and organist/vocalist by night, started his son early on the Hammond B-3. Young Joey began playing organ when he was four years old. Six months later, he had already memorized Jimmy Smith’s classic tune “The Sermon.”

After studying classical music from 10 to 14 at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, he enrolled in the City of Brotherly Love’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. His classmates there included bassist/jazz personality Christian McBride, drummer/The Roots co-founder Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. “I came into school one day at 8 a.m. to find Joey and Christian McBride burning through ‘Giant Steps’ at an impossibly fast tempo, rollicking and laughing the whole way,” Rosenwinkel wrote on his Facebook page in memoriam.

In 1987, DeFrancesco placed fourth in the inaugural Thelonious Monk Piano Competition. He toured Europe as a member of Miles Davis’ band at 17, and also recorded All Of Me, his first of five albums for Columbia, with Houston Person guesting on two tracks.

“There was an announcement at school that Joey needed to go to the principal’s office, and we all got quiet thinking there was a death in his family,” Thompson recounted in a 2004 interview. “That’s when he found out that Miles wanted him on tour in Europe.”

DeFrancesco’s final side for Columbia, 1993’s Live At The Five Spot, featured Person again, as well as fellow tenor men Illinois Jacquet, Grover Washington Jr. and Kirk Whalum. A year later, he was playing trumpet, and by his mid-twenties he was drumming and singing, too. He’d sometimes play two instruments at once in concert.

“I’ve never had a problem saying that Joey DeFrancesco was hands-down the most creative and influential organist since Jimmy Smith,” McBride wrote in an official statement. “In terms of taking the organ to the next level and making it popular again for a younger generation, no one did it like Joey. He truly set a new bar and his legacy will live on as such.”

The public agreed with McBride’s assessment. DeFrancesco won every DownBeat Readers Poll since 2008 and every Critics Poll save three since 2012.

Like McBride, DeFrancesco was both immensely respected by his elders and encouraging to the next generation of jazz organists. “McDuff loved him, and he loved Mac,” said Pete Fallico, a Northern California-based jazz organ evangelist who met DeFrancesco in the early ’90s and worked with him off and on ever since. “And he obviously knew the people from Philadelphia — Trudy Pitts, Shirley Scott, Jimmy McGriff, Charlie Earland. He was very, very friendly with all of them.”

“Joey always joked that we were his disciples, and we really were,” said 45-year-old organist Brian Ho. “If you’re part of the jazz organ idiom, at some point you study what he did.

“He was always very encouraging, too. He was checking out the new players and wanting to hear what they were doing,” Ho continued. “Joey had a show [on Sirius XM Satellite Radio’s Real Jazz Channel] called Organized where he would feature organists. And, he would always play albums from young or undiscovered players.”

Subsequent recordings on labels such as HighNote and Big Mo Records, Concord Jazz and Mack Avenue established him as the most notable organist of his generation. He also did high-profile recordings with Van Morrison, Bette Midler and Joe Pesci (a.k.a. Joe Doggs) and was a member of guitarist John McLaughlin’s The Free Spirits trio with drummer Dennis Chambers in the mid-’90s.

Highlights from his recorded career include Incredible! (Concord, 2000), which was recorded at live at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco and features two medleys with his mentor Smith; guitarist Pat Martino’s Live At Yoshi’s (Blue Note, 2001) with drummer Billy Hart; vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s Enjoy The View (Blue Note, 2014) with Hart and alto saxophonist David Sanborn; and For Jimmy, Wes And Oliver (Mack Avenue, 2020), the Christian McBride Big Band album which reunites the “best friends,” according to the bandleader.

As much as he advanced the conceptual development of the jazz organ, DeFrancesco was also involved in technological innovations to keep the instrument a viable option for future generations. “While it is important to play the B-3, the well-maintained ones are just few and far between,” Ho pointed out. “So he helped develop the Viscount (Legend Joey DeFrancesco signature organ by KeyB). I think that will be part of his legacy.”

Late in his career, DeFrancesco added saxophone to his arsenal. “You know, my grandfather was a saxophone player, and played with the Dorsey Brothers,” he explained in a November 2021 DownBeat cover article by J.D. Considine. “Joseph, who I’m named after. So there was always some saxophone history in the family. My father kept his horns, and thank goodness he did, because those were there when I wanted to dabble with the instrument.”

“I always used to say God gave Joey enough talent for 10 musicians,” Fallico remarked, in a phone interview three days after DeFrancesco’s passing. “Mind, body and soul, he’s probably one of the most gifted musicians we’ll ever see.” DB

Click HERE for the complete DownBeat 87th Annual Readers Poll listings.




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