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Joey DeFrancesco, driving force on the Hammond organ, dies at 51

Joey DeFrancesco performs at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis in 2021.
Mark Sheldon
Joey DeFrancesco performs at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis in 2021.

Joey DeFrancesco, who brought the richly enveloping sound of the Hammond B-3 organ roaring back into the jazz mainstream in the early 1990s, reigning as its preeminent ace for more than 30 years, died on Thursday. He was 51.

Gloria DeFrancesco, his wife and manager, announced his death on social media, but did not provide a cause.

Few jazz artists in any era have ever dominated the musical language and popular image of an instrument the way DeFrancesco did with the organ — as early as 17, when his head-turning debut was released on Columbia Records. He exhibited supreme technical command at the keyboard, reeling off ribbons of notes with his right hand. And he took full advantage of the sonic possibilities presented by an organ console, with its drawbars, switches and pedal board; his organ could lurch abruptly from an ambient hum to a sanctified holler, or change timbres and textures in the middle of a phrase. Like his idol and closest parallel, Jimmy Smith, he revealed new vistas on the instrument.

Also like Smith, DeFrancesco was emotionally evocative with his sound, unfailingly reaching audiences with a soulful message rooted in the blues. His language encompassed not only bebop and the blues but also the modal dialects of organist Larry Young, and pianists like McCoy Tyner. His radiant brand of virtuosity attracted collaborators ranging from Miles Davis, whose band DeFrancesco joined while still a senior in high school, to Van Morrison, with whom he made two recent albums. He is prominently featured on Christian McBride's 2020 release For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver, which won the Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album in April.

DeFrancesco made some 30 albums of his own, a few of which involve an implicit passing of the torch from sterling predecessors like Smith and Jack McDuff. Other albums featured an array of kindred spirits, old and young, including the tenor saxophone masters Illinois Jacquet, George Coleman, Houston Person and most recently Pharoah Sanders. On his latest, More Music, DeFrancesco demonstrates his own proficiency on tenor saxophone, as well as trumpet, keyboards and vocals. "He had nothing left to prove on organ," McBride, who is the host of the NPR program Jazz Night in America, tells WRTI. "I think that's why he took up trumpet and saxophone. I told him if he ever picked up bass, we'd have some words!"

Like McBride, who interviewed DeFrancesco for a 2019 episode of Jazz Night in America, he remained closely associated with his native Philadelphia even long after he'd made his home elsewhere. Partly this was due to the deep tradition of the organ combo in Philly — as Pat Martino, a guitar luminary who cut his teeth with a marquee generation of jazz organists there, implied in his 2011 autobiography, Here and Now! (with Bill Milkowski). Martino, who died last year, hailed DeFrancesco in the book as "an exceptional artist," adding: "As a player, he's just ferocious, in that tradition of Jimmy Smith and all the great Philly organists."

Born in Springfield, Pa. on April 10, 1971, Joseph DeFrancesco came to music as a birthright. His father, known as "Papa" John DeFrancesco, played organ on the Philadelphia jazz scene; his grandfather and namesake, Joseph DeFrancesco, had played saxophone and clarinet during the swing era of the 1930s, in upstate New York. His older brother, Johnny, is a blues guitarist.

Joey started out banging on a toy piano, but by age 4 he had graduated to his father's organ, which hulked in the house whenever it wasn't set up for a residency at a club. He learned not only from his father but also from prominent organists like Trudy Pitts and Shirley Scott.

At age 9, Joey's father brought him to the Settlement Music School, a community organization with a long history of mentoring young talent. The band, mostly composed of high school kids, was directed by Lovett Hines, who remembers that Joey was so little that when he sat at the piano bench, his feet wouldn't touch the ground.

"He was a terror at the organ," recalls Hines, who stayed in contact with DeFrancesco over the years. "You could maybe best him on trumpet or tenor, but once he sat down at the organ, it was all over."

DeFrancesco was only 10 when he played his first professional gig, at Gert's Cocktail Lounge on South Street, which held a jam session every Monday night. Tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley and drummer "Philly" Joe Jones were regulars. By the time McBride met DeFrancesco at Settlement Music School a few years later, "Joey was already a local superstar as a middle schooler," McBride recalls. "I was 12, he was 13. We were the youngest ones in the band."

DeFrancesco attended the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where his classmates included McBride, drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. He was the first of their peer group to get a record deal, after his performance at the first annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition impressed George Butler, a producer and A&R executive at Columbia.

He eventually worked in a range of situations beyond the typical organ combo, including a group called The Free Spirits, a fusion group with guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Dennis Chambers. But he also pulled others into his zone; even with McLaughlin, DeFrancesco found a foot-tapping groove, notably on a 1995 album titled After the Rain, with master drummer Elvin Jones.

In recent years, DeFrancesco took a focused interest on what he called "spiritual jazz," ranging from Sanders to Sun Ra, with a searching quality and a more open harmonic territory. As for his exploration on the organ, it was no different than it ever had been. "I've always been stretching the boundaries of the instrument since day one," he told Philadelphia Weekly in 2019. "I have my influences, but nobody's played the organ the way I play it."

Additional reporting by Josh Jackson of WRTI.

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