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Joey DeFrancesco, organist and popular entertainer, has died at 51

Joey DeFrancesco at the Newport Jazz Festival 2014
Todd Van Hoosear
Wikimedia/CC-SA 2.0
Joey DeFrancesco at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2014.

The 1980s wunderkind who is credited with reviving the soulful jazz of the Hammond organ, Joey DeFrancesco, died August 25. He was 51.

Named for his saxophone-playing grandfather and mentored by his organist father "Papa" John DeFrancesco, Joey DeFrancesco got started on keyboards at age four, and a year later, was emulating his hero, the legendary Jimmy Smith.

By the time he was 10, DeFrancesco was working as a sideman with well-known jazz musicians like saxophonist Hank Mobley and drummer Philly Joe Jones. He was the opening act for many notable jazz musicians who came through Philadelphia.

DeFrancesco won awards all the way through high school, including the McCoy Tyner Scholarship offered by the Philadelphia Jazz Society, and he was a finalist in the very first Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition. He signed with Columbia Records when he was 16, and at 18, started touring with his own band.

After recording with Miles Davis, DeFrancesco started playing the trumpet. Occasionally he would sing, and most recently, he'd started playing the saxophone. His 2021 album, "More Music," was DeFrancesco's first recording on which he played tenor sax.

Always a popular entertainer, DeFrancesco was a 4-time Grammy nominee, a 9-time winner of the DownBeat magazine Critics Poll, and won the DownBeat Readers Poll as best organist every year since 2005.

DeFrancesco focused on thrilling his audiences, not only with his multi-instrumental abilities, but also with just the sheer joy of making music. A typical night with Joey DeFrancesco in performance would include soulful blues, a few trumpet showpieces, a Frank Sinatra tribute, and plenty of fast-burning Hammond B-3.

The cause of DeFrancesco's death was not released. His family will share that information and details for memorial services at a later date.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.