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Joey DeFrancesco: From Musical Prodigy to Jazz Icon

Victor L. Schermer By

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Joey DeFrancesco is a true master of the jazz organ, the one others look up to as the standard bearer, as was his inspirational hero, Jimmy Smith. Arguably, he could be dubbed the Mozart of the jazz organ, since like Mozart, he seemed to have been born with all the music already in him. By four, again like Mozart, he was studying with his father. His dad, organist Papa John DeFrancesco took Joey with him on gigs around Philadelphia. At ten, believe it or not, he joined the jazz scene there, working with mature top-of-the-line musicians like Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley! At sixteen, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia Records. Many jazz musicians develop at a young age, but rarely as early as this kid from Springfield, PA. By eighteen, he was touring with Miles Davis.

Now many years later, Joey DeFrancesco is in demand for performances everywhere and has logged about 40 albums as a leader, not to mention a host of duties as a sideman. His most recent recording, In the Key of the Universe (Mack Avenue, 2019) and his gig with Terell Stafford's Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia at the Kimmel Center provided the occasions for this interview.

All About Jazz: I always start with the infamous desert island question: What records would you bring?

.Joey DeFrancesco: That's a hard question to answer. Probably A Love Supreme (Impulse! 1965) and Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). I'd take some Ray Charles because he covered everything. I love the one he did with Quincy Jones, Genius + Soul = Jazz (Impulse! 1961). That's a great one: he plays organ on it. Or—I could sneak around this question and just take my IPod to the desert island, so I could listen to whatever I wanted to. (LOL!!)

Genius + Organ = Joey

AAJ: Tell us a little about your earliest musical influences and coming up in a musical family in the 1970s.

.JDF: Well, there's the stuff everybody knows. I grew up in Springfield, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. My father played organ, and I started playing when I was four years old. By the time I was ten, I was already gigging in Philly and the burbs. As a kid, I sat in with my dad at various places. Not really jazz clubs, but at restaurants, Italian clubs, and so on, where his trio would play, sometimes for month or years on a regular basis. Then when I was ten, I started playing my own gigs at jazz clubs like Jewel's and Gert's and Carter's, I'm sure you know those. I had my own bands. Then when I was sixteen, I signed with Columbia Records.

AAJ: Before we get to that, what musicians did you play with in Philly during that early period?

.JDF: I worked with Philly Joe Jones, Shirley Scott, Hank Mobley, Mickey Roker, Bootsie Barnes, Jimmy Oliver, and a bunch of others.

AAJ: You were in your early teens, and working with the top of the heap! A propos of that, how did you get to meet Jimmy Smith as your guru for jazz organ?

.JDF: I first met him in New York, when my parents took me there to see him play.

AAJ: Did you have a personal relationship with him? How did you learn from him?

.JDF: I learned from him and others from listening. They were all teachers in that respect. My father was my only formal teacher as such. Later on, I went to the Settlement Music School to study classical piano. But I basically picked up music just from listening. I had a really good ear.

AAJ: Did listening to Jimmy Smith change your way of approaching the music?

.JDF: Even as a little kid, I listened to his records, and he blew my mind! I loved it. And I was lucky enough that I had the instrument to play, and just started working on it.

AAJ: Who were some of the other organists that influenced you in the early days?

.JDF: Well, I was influenced by everyone, not just organ players. But if you're just talking organ players, it would be the obvious ones: Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Jack McDuff, Trudy Pitts, and Don Patterson. Those were the main cats that I listened to in their early development. And I still enjoy listening to them now.

AAJ: A number of them worked with guitarist Pat Martino and had a big impact on him and vice-versa.

.JDF: Pat Martino worked with McDuff and Patterson.

AAJ: So which other non-organ musicians had a big impact on you?

.JDF: Of course, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson. The usual suspects! (LOL!!)

AAJ: Bebop, hard bop, cool jazz great ones! But you also must have been influenced by what's been called "soul jazz."

.JDF: Well you know, I always have loved Ray Charles, "Fats" Domino, 1950's R&B like Little Richard, those were the things that got me rollin,' and then you just progress from there. But you know, all of that comes from the blues, and one of the things is that the organ has an R&B sound to it even if you're playing bop or whatever, so it's natural that it would come into play.

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