Born on April 10, 1971, in Springfield, PA; son of "Papa" John, an organist, and Laurene DeFrancesco. Addresses: Record company--Concord Jazz and Concord Picante, P.O. Box 845, Concord, CA 94522 Phone: (925) 682-6770.

Although keyboardist Jimmy Smith, regarded as the master of the Hammond B-3 organ sound in jazz, never gave up on his instrument during the 1980s when the popularity of synthesizers overshadowed the organ, most critics cite a younger player by the name of Joey DeFrancesco as the musician most responsible for bringing the organ back to the forefront of the jazz scene. A brilliant, energetic player who helped the Hammond organ regain respectability since his arrival in the late 1980s, DeFrancesco was born on April 10, 1971, in Springfield, Pennsylvania, spending most of his childhood in the city of Philadelphia. DeFrancesco, an established organist by the time he was 20 years old, came from a line of distinguished musicians: his grandfather, a multi-instrumentalist; his father, an accomplished organist and trumpeter; and his brother, a blues guitarist, all enjoyed respected careers.

DeFrancesco's musical roots can be traced back to the organist's Sicilian-born grandfather, Joe DeFrancesco, Sr., who, unlike his grandson, didn't even enter the music world until the age of 29. Nonetheless, the elder musician displayed a seemingly innate ability to learn just about any instrument he picked up, leading him eventually to spend eight years playing with the swing band the Dorsey Brothers. Describing his grandfather's talent, DeFrancesco recalled, "He'd get a call, maybe it was Wednesday, for Wednesday night, to do a piano gig," as quoted by interviewer Pete Fallico for the organist's official website biography. "Well, he'd go rent a piano and learn how to play it during the day and go do the gig that night!"

Following in the footsteps of DeFrancesco, Sr., eldest son "Papa" John DeFrancesco (DeFrancesco's father) became an accomplished musician as well. He started his career playing trumpet in Niagara Falls, New York, but after seeing a performance one night by organist Jimmy Smith, Papa John laid down his horn in favor of the other instrument. His supportive wife, Laurene DeFrancesco, agreed to the new instrument--and large piece of furniture--as an addition to the family home, and Papa John, teaching himself how to play and practicing nights after work, soon became a proficient player. Listening to albums and watching other noted organists play live at clubs to improve his technique, he commenced his professional career as an organist by performing at local venues in Niagara Falls, then moved the family to Buffalo, New York, a town known for its "organ fever." From there, the family finally settled in Philadelphia, considered by many the jazz organ capital of the world. It was here that DeFrancesco's father, leading his trio, established himself on the jazz scene.

An Organ Prodigy

Watching his father on stage and hearing music at home, DeFrancesco likewise took to the organ and was so young when he started that his legs dangled from the bench, his feet unable to reach the pedals. A natural musician and born entertainer like his grandfather and father before him, DeFrancesco started playing piano at the age of five, but quickly gravitated to the organ. Soon thereafter, the prodigious youngster made his first public appearance. He recalled to Fallico about the first time his father took him--at the age of six--to one of his gigs to sit in at a club called the Grid Iron in Philadelphia: "I knew 'Groove's Groove,' Jimmy Smith's 'The Sermon' and a couple of things... I remember walking into that place and hearing that organ, you know ... they were playing some blues: 'Red Top' ... and I was a nervous wreck (laughing)... I was so nervous that when they brought me up there to play, I only played the bottom manual; I didn't even play the top keyboard. My dad had to adjust the volume for me 'cause there was no way I could reach the bass pedals or the volume pedal ... and that was like the greatest experience I'll ever have."

Realizing his son's unmistakable gift and desire to play, Papa John began taking his young son to clubs in and around Philadelphia, where the heroes of the jazz organ would appear on a regular basis. Such early exposure, in particular his first encounter with one of the legends of groove-organ music, a self-taught player named Jack McDuff, proved an important catalyst for DeFrancesco's subsequent development. That evening, at a club called the Flight Deck in Wilmington, Delaware, DeFrancesco had the opportunity to play for a few minutes at the end of the show with the renowned player. "I came up there and played 'Rock Candy' and Jack was ... he was laughing.... He got behind me, like he was shooting me and stuff. We traded off and it was great. He picked me up when I was done and kept saying; 'Ten!... Ten years old!' ... you know, things like that, I'll never forget." Following this impressionable night, DeFrancesco would go on to meet and learn from some of the greatest organists of the time, including McDuff, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Trudy Pitts, Shirley Scott, Don Patterson, Jimmy McGriff, and others.

DeFrancesco studied music during high school in Philadelphia, but decided against continuing formal training when an invaluable learning experience was offered to him: to play with Miles Davis, inarguably one of the most important jazz musicians to have ever lived. The young organist had met the legendary trumpeter/bandleader when he was asked to play his instrument, along with other high school students, on a local television show which boasted Davis as a guest. So impressed was Davis with DeFrancesco, then only 16 years of age, that he later asked the young musician to join his band in New York. DeFrancesco made other strides while still in high school as well; he won numerous awards as a teen, including the Philadelphia Jazz Society's McCoy Tyner Scholarship, and at the first ever Thelonius Monk International Jazz Piano Competition held in 1987, the then 16-year-old DeFrancesco placed third.

Emulated the Jazz Masters

By the time DeFrancesco left high school, the promising organist's future seemed certain. Already, he had secured a contract with Columbia Records for five albums and was playing by 1988 with Davis, accompanying the renowned bandleader for a European tour and playing keyboards for "Cobra" from Davis's Amandla. Working with Davis changed DeFrancesco's playing in many ways. For instance, the organist started to concentrate with more determination on the techniques used by the jazz masters. Applying what he was learning from Davis directly to the organ, DeFrancesco would solo with his right hand to emulate the sound of Davis's horn, and he even picked up the trumpet as a second instrument. Moreover, his association with Davis served as a boost for his popularity, and jazz enthusiasts from around the world recognized DeFrancesco's name.

In 1989, DeFrancesco debuted with All of Me, though the album received lukewarm reviews for its poor choice of material and overblown arrangements. However, he redeemed himself the following year with Where Were You. Recorded at the renowned Van Gelder studios with guest appearances by bassist Milt Hinton, Kirk Whalum, guitarist John Scofield, and Illinois Jacket, Where Were You presented DeFrancesco as a young artist among his new peers. After this, DeFrancesco recorded three more albums for Columbia: 1991's Part III, recorded with the organist's touring band, 1992's Reboppin', which included an appearance by DeFrancesco's father and brother for the track "Family Jam," and 1993's Live at the Five Spot.

Jazz and Beyond

After leaving Columbia, DeFrancesco continued to record for other labels, applying his talent to a variety of formats. For 1994's All About My Girl, the organist and his backing band--guitarist Paul Bollenback and drummer Byron Landham--delved into the blues, soul, and rockabilly in addition to the jazz style, easing into slower numbers with guest tenor saxophonist and producer Houston Person. DeFrancesco stretched his musicianship further with 1995's The Street of Dreams, an album dedicated to his mentor, McDuff. With this effort, DeFrancesco illustrated his versatility by also playing piano and trumpet and even singing. Next, the organist teamed with McDuff for the 1996 recording It's All About Time, which included a version of the elder player's funk gem "Rock Candy," the same tune DeFrancesco played for McDuff as a 10-year-old boy.

In the spring of 1998, DeFrancesco, along with his father, released the acclaimed All in the Family. Of the album, Herb Boyd in a May 1998 review for Down Beat insisted: "If your pulse does not quicken at the first quiver and sumptuous quake of the combined organs of Joey and Papa DeFrancesco, then there must be something wrong with your ticker." DeFrancesco followed this project with three more well-received albums: a collection of standards entitled All or Nothing at All, released in 1998; a tribute to one of his influences entitled The Champ: Dedicated to Jimmy Smith, released in 1999; and a concept album recorded with guitarist Frank Vignola and drummer Joe Ascione in celebration of his Italian roots entitled Goodfellas, released in 2000. "I always wanted to do this album," the then 28-year-old organist told Jason Koransky in an interview for Down Beat. "The album goes with the Italian-American heritage, the music we listen to. They're tunes that you hear from the movies, like 'Speak Softly Love.' You know we're talking about The Godfather once you hear that. These are the songs you love if you're Italian. They're tradition. If you're Italian, Frank Sinatra is president and 'Fly Me To The Moon' is a staple."

Leaving his childhood home of Philadelphia in 1998, DeFrancesco relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, where he lives with his wife and young daughter. In the fall of 1999, DeFrancesco had the opportunity to play at the San Francisco Jazz Festival with his idol, Smith, a realized dream for the younger musician. A live recording of the show--which marked the first time Smith ever recorded with another organist--was set for future release on Concord Jazz, DeFrancesco's current label.

by Laura Hightower

Joey DeFrancesco's Career

Started playing piano at the age of five and the organ at age six; won numerous awards and competitions in high school; played with Miles Davis's band, 1988; debuted with All of Me, 1989; teamed with mentor Jack McDuff for It's All About Time, 1996; released a concept album celebrating Italian-American heritage entitled Goodfellas, 2000.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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