HIGGS: More on the DeFrancesco family of musicians

Norma Higgs

This week we highlight Joey DeFrancesco, who was born April 10, 1971 in Springfield, Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia. He was born into the musical family that began with his grandfather Joseph in Niagara Falls, who played the clarinet and saxophone and his father “Papa” John who we have already met along with older brother Johnny, the guitarist.

Joey is known today as an American jazz organist, trumpeter and vocalist. Wikipedia states, “He has released more than 30 albums, including recordings with Miles Davis and Jimmy Smith. “DeFrancesco signed his first record deal at the age of 16 and has played internationally with many famous musicians that included Ray Charles, Bette Midler and Van Morrison among others.

His own website relates his “emergence in the 1980s marked the onset of a musical renaissance. Organ jazz had all but gone into hibernation from the mid-‘70s to the mid-‘80s until DeFrancesco reignited the flame with his vintage Hammond organ and Leslie speaker cabinet.” He started playing this organ at the age of four and was playing songs by Jimmy Smith at age five going with his father “Papa” John who took him to gigs where they let him sit in on sets. “ By age ten he had joined a band in Philadelphia that included jazz musicians Hank Mobly and Phily Joe Jones. He was considered a fixture a local jazz clubs, opening shows for Wynton Marsalis and B.B. King.

During his high school years at Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, DeFrancesco won numerous awards including the Philadelphia Jazz Society McCoy Tyner Scholarship. At 16 he signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia Records, releasing his first recording “All of Me”, the following year. That performance is considered as helping bring back the organ to jazz music during the 1980s. His recording deal with Columbia included the release of five albums. He released “Where Were You” in 1990, “Part III” in 1991, “Reboppin” in 1992 and “Live at the 5 Spot” in 1993.

He joined Miles Davis and his band on a five-week concert tour of Europe. His natural abilities came to light when he picked up the trumpet during the tour with Miles Davis and became one of the two youngest players ever recruited for any of Davis’ ensembles They quickly recognized his talent and enthusiasm.

He was originally spotted by Davis during a performance the television show “Time Out”. He and a high school classmate Christian McBride were performing on the set when Davis asked the show’s host, “What’s your organ player’s name”? He went on to play the keyboard on Davis’ album Amandla which reached No. 1 on the Contemporary Jazz Albums chart in 1989. Inspired by Miles Davis’ sound, he started playing the trumpet sound that same time.

Joey DeFrancesco began touring at 18 with his own quartet. At age 22, he became a founding member of the group “The Free Spirits.” Joey, along with John McLaughlin, a former guitarist with Miles Davis, and drummer Dennis Chambers toured together for four years and were involved in several recordings, including the albums “After the Rain” and “Toyko Live” where he also played the trumpet.

Joey’s idol was Jimmy Smith, who joined him for the last few songs during the recording of his album “Incredible! Live at the San Francisco Jazz Festival”. Smith was also featured on a later album, “Legacy”, recorded in 2005. That was his last recording as he died the same year.

Moving along in his career, Joey was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2004 for his record “Falling in Love Again”, and in 2009 he appeared in the film “Moonlight Serenade” starring Amy Adams and Alec Newman. He played the role of “Frank D” in the film and was a composer and producer of the film. In 2011 he was again nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album for “Never Can Say Goodbye: The Music of Michael Jackson.” This was released in 2010, as a tribute to Michael Jackson, adding to DeFrancesco’s list of tribute albums. He turned 40 in 2011, and released his 29th recording titled “40”, which had success both on jazz charts domestically and in Europe.

Joey DeFrancesco performed 200-plus nights a year throughout his career, cutting back in 2013. Wikipedia further notes “His music is known as ‘a swinging Philly sound, which he embellishes with his own ferocity and improvisation’ and, that he received numerous accolades for his performances, including being called the best B3 player on the planet by “Jazz Times”. “The New York Times” has called him ‘a deeply authoritative musician, a master of rhythmic pocket, and of the casual stomping bass lines beneath chords and riffs.” He has also been involved in product designs and endorsements related to digital organ technology both in the United States and internationally. He and his wife Gloria reside in Arizona.

Niagara Falls native grandfather Joseph DeFrancesco passed along his love and talent for music down the family tree, through his son “Papa” John, who recognized those talents of his two sons and nurtured them both at early ages. Their music lives on forever.

P.S. – Yes it’s DeFrancesco- I apologize for the misspelling last week.

Contact Norma Higgs by email at niahigg@aol.com.