Papa John DeFrancesco: It's All In The Name!

Mikayla Gilbreath By

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I was about 19 when I first saw Jimmy Smith. And when I heard the organ, man, I was done!
Papa John DeFrancescoA performer's public persona can sometimes be quite different from reality. So when I meet somebody for the first time, there's always the possibility that I'll come away from the meeting feeling surprised, or even disappointed. Well, I needn't have worried about meeting renowned jazz organist Papa John DeFrancesco. The only surprises were pleasant ones.

John DeFrancesco became Papa John probably as a means of distinguishing him from his son, Johnny. But something tells me that the word Papa would have crept into his name somehow, anyway. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Papa John seems to be first, and foremost, a family man. A family man with a pretty remarkable family!

It must be genetic. How else can we explain the concentration of accomplished musicians in certain families such as the Marsalis's (Ellis, Branford, Wynton, et al.) and the Heath's (Albert, Percy, and Jimmy)? The DeFrancesco's are another such family, one which has produced remarkable musicians over several generations.

DeFrancesco's own father, Joe DeFrancesco, was a Sicilian-born musician with the uncanny ability to quickly learn and play almost any musical instrument. One highlight from Joe DeFrancesco's career was the 8 years he played with the Dorsey Brothers swing band.

On September 12th, 1940, John DeFrancesco was born in Niagara Falls, New York, where he spent his childhood. Because his father was a musician, he was exposed to music at an early age. At only 6 he began playing bugle and trumpet. "The Boy's Club had a drum and bugle corps. I got interested in the bugle. And my dad said, 'Well... we'll probably have to get you a trumpet.' So that's how it really got rolling... We had all these saxophones, and I figured Dad had to go buy me a trumpet.

"When I was in Junior High... I was in all the bands at school. Trumpet playing. You know, the dance band, the orchestra, all those shows they did... I was a part of all that. The marching band [chuckles].

"I guess I was about 13 when I started playing professionally. Yeah, we had a couple of little gigs. I mean it wasn't a lot of money. Guys all got together... you know you meet musicians in school... and we all formed a band. And one of the guys' Dad owned a night club, ...a bar and nightclub. And [we] used to play in there for like five bucks, I think. I don't even remember. But we got paid!" DeFrancesco would continue playing trumpet for a few years, even as he entered the jazz scene in earnest.

Early in his career, DeFrancesco made a decision that continues to serve him well. He proudly states, "No drinkin...' no dope. Yeah, never... ever! A lot of cats won't believe that but, it's true... Yeah, I never dabbled... I just wanted to see what it was about—straight, you know what I mean?

"I was about 19 when I first saw Jimmy Smith. And when I heard the organ, man, I was done! Of course I still kept playing horn, until after I got married [1962]. Then my wife [Laurene] bought me an organ... I don't remember if it was for my birthday... or just because I was driving her crazy! It was a Hammond too, but not a B-3. It was a spinet." In typical DeFrancesco fashion, Papa John immersed himself in learning to play it and quickly graduated to the Hammond B-3.

While living in Niagara Falls, DeFrancesco began to play gigs in Buffalo, where he made the acquaintance of a number of jazz greats including Jack McDuff, Dr. Lonnie Smith, even Cab Calloway. "We were playing a gig in a place called the Glen Casino. And Cab Calloway was there. We opened up and then they came on. And then we all played together. [Calloway] was big at the time.

"I met Lonnie [Smith] in Buffalo... [Dr.] Lonnie Smith and I both probably learned how to play the organ from the same guy. You know... by pickin' his brains. A guy named Joe Madison... They used to call him Joe "Groove" Madison. He could really groove too, man. Wow!"

Since that time, DeFrancesco has had the good fortune to play with many accomplished jazz musicians including Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, George Benson, Houston Person, and many others.

DeFrancesco would later move to Philadelphia and become a key player in the Philly Jazz scene. Meanwhile, changes at home were prompting changes in his career path. "Well you know, when my kids came along, I kind of gave up the road, and stayed home." His time at home was obviously well spent.

DeFrancesco's son, Joey, started playing professionally at a very young age. His meteoric rise to prominence as a jazz organist is credited (by many) with reviving interest in the organ as a legitimate jazz instrument. Yet others regard Joey DeFrancesco as perhaps the greatest jazz organist of all-time. But Joey wasn't the only musician in the DeFrancesco household.

Papa John DeFrancxesco

"My son John, too... He's a guitarist, you know." Johnny DeFrancesco is a talented and successful jazz and blues guitarist. "He's on a couple of my albums Walkin' Uptown..., Jumpin. He's on almost every one... And my daughter... played horn for a while, saxophone... My grandkids, one's a trumpet player, one's a percussionist... and the little girl's playing piano. So they're all still involved one way or another." DeFrancesco later stated. "Yeah, I'm proud of all my kids, but... you know... it's pretty neat!"

Laurene DeFrancesco not only shares her husband's commitment to family, but can also take credit for contributing to their children's musical heritage. Her father was also a musician. Papa John recalled "He was a saxophonist and, in fact, her dad and my dad used to gig together... So the kids don't have a chance. They've got music all over the place...! Poor kids! [chuckles]

DeFrancesco openly demonstrates his pride and affection for his family. But he also has much to be proud of in his own continued accomplishments. In between periodic tours, he's found time to record 8 albums as a single artist, and continues to be in demand for live performances. Headlining the Glendale Jazz Festival this year, Papa John DeFrancesco has teamed with sax legend David "Fathead" Newman. And, a new album is in the planning stages as well. "I'm not in the studio yet, but I'm getting all the music together. There's going to be a lot of swingin' stuff on there. And plus maybe a couple of funk tunes... Probably a ballad or two."

Later, I mentioned the fact that people sometimes refer to Jazz as a dying art form, and DeFrancesco seemed to chafe somewhat. "I hate it when they say that...! But you know, I don't see how it could die. I mean, if you listen to half of the commercials, most of them have pretty good music. You know? Sometimes, the cartoons are the hippest!" He's right, of course, that jazz is nearly omni-present, on TV, movies, and advertising of every kind. Jazz is not dying, but perhaps it is suffering an identity crisis.

"Jazz is here to stay. It's the American classical music, the African-American classical music really... I think it's just not played... not 'airtime....' I mean they have all these musical shows on TV [and] they never talk about jazz... They used to have the Grammy's... used to have jazz on there. [Now,] they tell you who won, but [the jazz artists] never play."

Papa John DeFrancesco

Obviously doing his own part to ensure that jazz stays vibrant and alive, DeFrancesco regularly offers encouragement to young musicians. Young jazz musicians are invited to come "sit in" with DeFrancesco and his band at Bobby C's in Phoenix, Arizona. "When we're playing there at Bobby C's... we encourage that!

I was curious whether he sometimes gets frustrated, working with younger jazz musicians, players still trying to develop their skills and style. "Have I ever gotten upset by young cats? Naw! Hey man, I was young once too. And I was trying to 'pick brains' too... That's how you learn, man... We used to jam all the time. There were a lot of places to jam back in the day. That's how most of the cats learned... Bring your ax, come out and play. It's encouraged. If you can play, then come on over. You know, we'll work it out."

Selected Discography:

Papa John DeFrancesco, Desert Heat (Savant, 2006)
Papa John DeFrancesco, Walking Uptown (Savant 2004)
Papa John DeFrancesco, Jumpin' (Savant, 2003)
Papa John DeFrancesco, Hip Cake Walk (Highnote, 2001)

Photo Credit
Michael and Mikayla Gilbreath

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