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Organist Joey DeFrancesco

Organist, saxophonist and trumpeter Joey DeFrancesco at Dimitrious Jazz Alley in Seattle, March 2022
Tom Collins
Organist, saxophonist and trumpeter Joey DeFrancesco at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley in Seattle, March 2022.

Joey DeFrancesco was considered by many to be the best Hammond organ player in the world. A musical prodigy who played multiple instruments, DeFrancesco sparked an organ revival in jazz and brought joy to everyone who heard him play. DeFrancesco passed away in August. Abe Beeson has more.

Joey DeFrancesco grew up in 1970s Philadelphia, the son of one of the area’s more popular organ players, Papa John DeFrancesco. Joey was a musical prodigy and had mastered “The Sermon” by his hero Jimmy Smith when he was just five years old.

He studied classical music before attending the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts alongside bassist Christian McBride and drummer Amir “Questlove” Thompson.

His meteoric rise in jazz led to a record deal at age 16, and a tour with the Miles Davis band a year later. On his debut album as a leader – and on several records that would follow – DeFrancesco teamed up with tenor saxophonist Houston Person. Their soulful and joyful sound is how many will always think of Joey DeFrancesco.

But the organ was just the beginning. DeFrancesco was inspired by his world class collaborators to pick up other instruments. Most noticeable was his incredible facility on trumpet. Listen to DeFrancesco burning up the title track from his album Reboppin’.

Critical and popular recognition followed quickly: Joey Defrancesco earned five Grammy nominations, numerous critics and audience polls, and was an inaugural inductee in the Hammond Hall of Fame in 2013, alongside his hero Jimmy Smith. The pair teamed up several times, including on the album Incredible!, live at the 2000 San Francisco Jazz Festival.

This past spring, I was honored to interview Mr. DeFrancesco after he recorded an exclusive set at Jazz Alley for KNKX with his trio. His new album More Music marked the debut recording of his saxophone playing – an instrument he told me was always a big influence, adding that learning other instruments has improved his overall musicianship.

“You transfer things that you learn from each instrument on to the other instrument. So what's wonderful about doing any of this is it’s something you chase for life and never really catch,” he said.

Over 35 years and 30 albums of his own – dozens more as a sideman – Joey Defrancesco was the King of the organ whose deep knowledge of the instrument’s history gave him a style that could incorporate all styles.

The sound of the organ has exploded in recent years, sparked by players who’ve been heavily influenced by Joey DeFrancesco. He was a talent on trumpet, saxophone, drums and singing— even joking with me about learning the valve trombone, it was Joey DeFrancesco’s creativity on the organ that’s a legacy that will live on forever.

"We need MORE music," DeFrancesco said. "There’s never enough.”

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a 3rd generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.