Joey DeFrancesco, Reigning King of the Jazz Organ, Dies at 51
Joey DeFrancesco, who was widely credited with bringing the organ back into vogue in jazz circles in recent decades, died on Thursday. He was 51.
His death was announced by his record company, Mack Avenue, which did not say where he died or cite the cause.
Mr. DeFrancesco had musicianship in his genes: His father, John DeFrancesco, has been playing jazz organ since the 1950s. He was dazzling listeners when he was a teenager.
“DeFrancesco — whose infectious, imp-of-the-perverse expressions make him as much fun to watch as listen to — can stride, flatten fifths and string together quotes from Bird, Diz, Monk and Miles with the polished resourcefulness of the eight-year veteran that he is,” Gene Seymour of The Philadelphia Daily News wrote in 1986 after observing the Settlement Jazz Ensemble at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, where the young Mr. DeFrancesco was then a student.
“And all the while you watch and listen,” Mr. Seymour added, “you find a little voice inside yourself chanting: ‘He’s 15 years old!’”
Within two years Mr. DeFrancesco had toured with Miles Davis and opened for Bobby McFerrin and Grover Washington Jr. In 1989, at 17, he played at Duke University with well-known musicians like the trumpeter Clark Terry in a concert that announced the forthcoming Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which would open soon after.
“As Mr. DeFrancesco played Duke Ellington’s ‘Sophisticated Lady,’ the elder musicians beamed and whispered encouragement,” Jonathan Probber wrote of that show in The New York Times. “The distinct impression was that Mr. DeFrancesco was an example of hopes on the way to realization.”
Certainly he was on the way to a formidable career, one that included more than 30 recordings as a bandleader, numerous others as a sideman and countless concerts. Along the way he brought the organ back into fashion in jazz.
The Hammond B3 organ became a favorite in jazz circles in the 1950s, with Jimmy Smith, who had numerous hit albums on the Blue Note label, leading the way. But in 1975 the Hammond company stopped making the instrument, and the trend of organ-based trios in jazz clubs faded.
Mr. DeFrancesco was a multi-instrumentalist; he also played trumpet, saxophone, piano and synthesizer. But he built his career playing an old-school B3.
“I love the synthesizers and play all that stuff, but you can’t beat the sound of the B3,” he told The Associated Press in 1991. “The instrument has a very warm tone. It’s got the contrasts. It just has all those emotions in it. It’s got little bits of every instrument in it. It’s like having a whole orchestra at your fingertips.”
Mr. DeFrancesco’s first album, “All of Me,” was released in 1989, and dozens more followed, with his musical interests ranging far and wide. He recorded his own original music. A 2004 album was called “Joey DeFrancesco Plays Sinatra His Way.” His “Never Can Say Goodbye” in 2010 reimagined the music of Michael Jackson. And he collaborated on albums with Van Morrison, the guitarist Danny Gatton and others.
The bassist Christian McBride had known Mr. DeFrancesco since they were students at the Settlement School.
“Joey DeFrancesco was hands down the most creative and influential organist since Jimmy Smith,” he said in a 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.”
Mr. Seymour, who decades ago wrote about the teenage Mr. DeFrancesco in Philadelphia and later became a critic at Newsday, remembered Mr. DeFrancesco in a Facebook post on Friday.
“His meteoric rise to fame didn’t surprise me at all,” he wrote. “What did, over time, was how deeply and consummately he mastered the jazz organ tradition at all ends of the musical spectrum, from blues and funk to post-bop and avant incantations. He fulfilled the obligations of his calling by never standing still, never being complacent.”
Mr. DeFrancesco was born on April 10, 1971, in Springfield, near Philadelphia. He didn’t wait long to pick his career path.
“When I was 4, my father brought in this monstrous thing, a B3, and he turned it on,” he told The Boston Herald in 1994. “It has a motor and a generator. I started playing it and the sound just moved me. Being a 4-year-old and making up your mind about what you want to do for the rest of your life — I was very fortunate.”
He of course credited his father with being his first influence.
“You can’t be better off than having a dad who plays the same instrument that you do,” he said. “The music that I heard from the time I was born was jazz.”
Happenstance helped propel his career: As a teenager he was performing on a local television show in Philadelphia when Miles Davis was the featured guest. The veteran jazzman was impressed, and Mr. DeFrancesco ended up touring with him for six months.
He released a steady stream of albums, five of which received Grammy Award nominations, including, most recently, “In the Key of the Universe” (2019). On his latest album, “More Music” (2021), which features 10 original compositions, he played six different instruments and threw in some vocals well.
He is survived by his wife, Gloria; his daughter, Ashley; his son, Donny; his parents, John and Laurene; his sister, Cheryle; and his brother, John.
Mr. DeFrancesco was something of a showman, even when he was a sideman. In 2010, for instance, he played with a trio led by the saxophonist David Sanborn. Mr. Sanborn was the headliner, but, as Nate Chinen wrote in The Times of the trio’s gigs, “It’s often as much Mr. DeFrancesco’s show, and sometimes more so.”
If he was more flamboyant than some of his contemporaries, that was deliberate, Mr. DeFrancesco told The Buffalo News in 2004.
“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?”