'The best jazz organ player on the planet': Joey DeFrancesco dies at 51

Joey DeFrancesco
Joey DeFrancesco
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Jazz Times once hailed Joey DeFrancesco as "the best B3 player on the planet."

For obvious reasons.

DeFrancesco died on Thursday, Aug. 25.

He was 51.

His wife and manager, Gloria DeFrancesco, broke the news on social media. She did not provide a cause of death.

"The love of my life is now in peace with the angels," she wrote. "Right now I have very few words. Thank you for the outpouring of love and support coming in from everywhere. Joey loved you all."

Signed to Columbia Records at 16, DeFrancesco released his first album, "All of Me," and joined Miles Davis on a five-week European tour at 17.

That tour with Davis led to playing keyboards for Davis on the 1989 release, "Amandla."

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DeFrancesco, from Philadelphia to Arizona

Born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, DeFrancesco attended the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and launched his career in Philadelphia, moving to Arizona long after having established himself as an in-demand jazz organist.

Joel Goldenthal is the executive director at the Nash in downtown Phoenix, a venue DeFrancesco often played.

"There's just no way to wrap your head around this loss," he says.

"He was such a magnificent human being. He was just incomparable. But that's too mild a word. There never was before and never will again be anybody as accomplished as he was on any instrument."

Despite that reservoir of talent, Goldenthal says, DeFrancesco was extremely humble.

"He was as down to earth and unassuming as he was a giant, with an innocent, youthful sense of wonderment," Goldenthal says. "He just encompassed that range of qualities."

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DeFrancesco's loss 'is just unfathomable'

Goldenthal recalls the joy of seeing DeFrancesco listen to the playback of some music he had just recorded with the legendary drummer for whom the Nash is named, Lewis Nash.

"The two of them were dancing around the Nash," he recalls with a laugh. "He looked like a dancing bear. It was just the funniest, sweetest thing seeing these two consummate jazz musicians dancing."

To Goldenthal, it speaks to "the joy he had in what he did, the joy of making music and the joy of sharing it."

The fact that he was only 51 makes this an even tougher loss for Goldenthal.

"Those of us in the jazz world, we live with the reality that so many of the legends of this art form are leaving us because of their age," Goldenthal says. "The loss of a young giant like Joey is just unfathomable."

Mike Kocour is director of Jazz Studies in the School of Music at Arizona State University.

"It's very sad, but there's no doubt that Joey DeFrancesco did not shortchange the world," Kocour says. "This is a guy who was prolific. I can't think of anybody who's done more in their lifetime, even if they lived to 90."

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'He got people excited about jazz organ'

As an organist, DeFrancesco topped the Critics Poll in DownBeat nine times and the DownBeat Readers Poll every year since 2005.

In reporting the news of his death, NPR wrote, "Few jazz artists in any era have ever dominated the musical language and popular image of an instrument the way DeFrancesco did with the organ."

Kocour also plays the Hammond B3 organ.

"When I first started playing the instrument in the early 1980s, no one was interested in presenting groups with jazz Hammond B3 players," Kocour says.

"The great jazz organists weren't being recorded so frequently. Jazz organ was something a lot of people had forgotten about. Joey DeFrancesco changed that. He got people excited about jazz organ."

Kocour compares him favorably to Jimmy Smith, who popularized the Hammond B-3 organ in the '60s, creating a link between the worlds of jazz and soul.

"If Joey were alive today, he'd say Jimmy Smith is the reason why that tradition still exists," Kocour says.

"Joey DeFrancesco more than anybody else continued and extended the amazing innovative work of Jimmy Smith and all the great jazz organists."

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'I truly loved his musicality and his heart'

DeFrancesco recorded an album with Smith, 2005's "Legacy," which launched Tempest Recording, the studio that sits behind Clarke Rigsby's Tempe home.

"We had a great relationship and went back 25, 30 years," Rigsby says.

"One of the things I loved about Joey is he would always bring in these great, iconic players. Pharoah Sanders, Billy Hart, Bobby Hutcherson, George Coleman. One time I said, 'Why do you do that?' He said, 'I always think it's good to go to the source.' I truly loved his musicality and his heart."

Of all the musicians Rigsby has recorded through the years, he credits DeFrancesco with having "the most incredible ear" of anyone he's ever worked with.

"He could hear something once and sing it back to you," Rigsby says.

"When we were doing the Jimmy Smith record, Jimmy took a solo and Joey came up to sit with me and listen to it. And when Jimmy's solo came up, Joey sang it note for note to me. I'm just looking at him, like 'You gotta be kidding me.'"

Kocour is a huge fan of DeFrancesco's playing.

"I can't remember anybody who I love to hear more than Joey," he says. "It was just so cool, so sophisticated yet so entertaining."

DeFrancesco was also responsible for the development of digital instruments that

replicate that classic Hammond B3 sound, including the Viscount Legend Live Joey DeFrancesco Signature Organ.

"That's an amazing instrument that doesn't weigh 400 pounds," Kocour says. "That's another way he made that jazz organ sound accessible for people, by helping to develop an instrument that was practical that professional musicians could use."

'Another one of the greats is lost'

Jay Valle is the U.S. sales and marketing director for Viscount Legend and considered DeFrancesco both a close friend and a major talent.

"I've known Joey for many, many years, since he was actually kind of a skinny kid," he says.

"And you could just see him blossom into today's best jazz organist in the world. He didn't just play a lot of notes. He played music from his heart and soul and everyone could feel his magic. Another one of the greats is lost."

DeFrancesco dedicated himself to working with Viscount for the last five years of his life.

"To be honest with you, the presence of our product right now is totally due to Joey's performances that he did with the product," Valle says. "It's a family-run company. And Joey has become, you know, just a member of our family."

He released more than 30 albums under his own name and recorded extensively as a sideman with such leading jazz performers as Davis, saxophonist Houston Person and guitarist John McLaughlin.

On his latest album, "More Music," DeFrancesco played organ, keyboard, piano, trumpet and, for the first time on record, tenor saxophone.

'This is a guy who was generous with his praise'

DeFrancesco was also known for his support of other players.

"If you were a musician and you met him and he heard you play, he always was curious about what you were doing, and always cared," Kocour says.

"This is a guy who was generous with his praise, his encouragement and always willing to share his knowledge."

As much as DeFrancesco toured, he was a common presence on the local jazz scene.

"He knew everybody who was playing jazz in Phoenix and would always come out and hear them play or sit in," Kocour says.

"He wanted us to know that he was part of the Phoenix jazz scene, and that's hard for a touring artist like him in terms of time and availability. But he was always checking in with the Phoenix jazz scene. We were very proud of that."

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Joey DeFrancesco, jazz organ and trumpet player, dies at 51