“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.”
Considered one of the prominent forces in the renaissance of organ jazz since his teens in the 1980s, Joey DeFrancesco died on August 25 at age 51. A favorite at the old Artists Quarter, The Dakota, and Crooners in the Twin Cities, Joey was long known for his stellar organ trios, but over the past decade also displayed his chops on trumpet, keyboards, vocals and, most recently, tenor saxophone. It was not unusual to see Joey seated at the organ, holding a horn in one hand.
Joey D began playing organ as a young child under the watchful ear of his father, jazz organist Papa John DeFrancesco. In his native Philadelphia, young Joey sat in on his dad’s gigs with some of the city’s top artists– Hank Mobley, Philly Joe Jones and more. As a high schooler, Joey caught the ear of a visiting Miles Davis, and soon was one of the two youngest musicians ever invited to join Miles (the other was Tony Williams). Touring with Davis, Joey became interested in trumpet, later complementing his organ with trumpet. Joey held an exclusive recording contract with Columbia, releasing a series of albums that helped seal his international reputation. He toured with a quartet and later trio, which became the longest-running organ trio of the modern jazz era, featuring guitarist Paul Bollenback and drummer Byron Landrum. (His 2021 trio gig at Crooners included guitarist Dan Wilson and drummer Anwar Marshall.)
When he was only 22, Joey was invited to join John McLaughlin’s Free Spirits, touring for four years. Over his career he performed with Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Bette Midler, David Sanborn, Arturo Sandoval, Frank Wess, Benny Golson, George Coleman, James Moody, Steve Gadd, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Cobb, George Benson, John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Larry Coryell and Bobby Hutcherson, as well as myriad foreign jazz artists who joined him on international gigs. In recent years, DeFrancesco focused on what he called “spiritual jazz,” ranging from Pharoah Sanders to Sun Ra. He also hosted a weekly radio program on SiriusXM, “Organized.”
Joey D received five Grammy nominations, most recently in 2019 for In the Key of the Universe. Winner of numerous Down Beat Magazine’s Critics’ and Readers’ Polls, he was inducted into the inaugural Hammond Organ Hall of Fame in 2014 and received a long list of awards from the Jazz Journalists Association.
Noted Nate Chinen in his obit for NPR, “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.” On his final recording, More Music (2021), Joey displayed his chops on tenor sax as well as trumpet, keyboards and vocals. “He had nothing left to prove on organ,” said bassist Christian McBride (host of Jazz Night in America). “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!”
In addition to his impeccable jazz chops, Joey D was also known as a somewhat flamboyant showman, which was intentional. In 2004, he told the The Buffalo News, “I think these new players are too damn serious,” he said. “The joy of it, the fun of it, is something that jazz has lost. I mean, we are entertainers, after all. If you don’t look like you’re having fun onstage, how is anyone in the audience supposed to?”
In the audience, we definitely had fun anytime Joey D was in the house. We’ll miss the music, and the musician.