Remembering Joey DeFrancesco, Pioneer Hammond Organist Who Changed Jazz Music: NPR


NPR’s Ari Shapiro speaks with music critic Nate Chinen about the legacy of iconic Hammond jazz organ player Joey DeFrancesco, who died on Thursday.


The jazz world has lost its eminent specialist in the Hammond organ. Joey DeFrancesco has been turning heads for decades, starting with his major label debut at age 17.


SHAPIRO: His wife confirmed the news on social media this morning, but did not mention a cause of death. He was 51 years old. Critic Nate Chinen of WRTI member station in Philadelphia is here to help us remember DeFrancesco. Thanks for taking the time.

NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: You’re welcome.

SHAPIRO: What sets his music apart?

CHINEN: Well, he was just an amazing virtuoso, you know. And the Hammond organ is this very particular instrument. You know, when you’re behind the console of an organ, you really have the power of an orchestra. And so when I think of his game, I think of this pure motor driving, and at the same time, of an incredible, almost unprecedented finesse. You know, he was just an amazing technician. But he associated that with this wonderful feeling of connection and, you know, still deeply rooted in the blues.


SHAPIRO: This combination of technical skills and style.

CHINEN: Absolutely. You know, he was a student of the instrument, he really understood the languages ​​of, you know, everyone, from Jimmy Smith, one of his heroes, to Larry Young to Shirley Scott. You know, he really knew everyone and absorbed it all at a very young age, then completely synthesized it and pushed the language of the instrument further. You know, he was a pioneer in that sense.

SHAPIRO: You’re based in Philadelphia, and he had roots there. Tell us about it.

CHINEN: Joey DeFrancesco was – and this is no exaggeration – Philadelphia jazz royalty.


CHINEN: His father, “Papa” John DeFrancesco, who is still with us, was an accomplished organ player in the making. And so Joey learned first hand. He’s a second-generation Philadelphia jazz organist. He learned not only from his father, but also from local players like Shirley Scott and Trudy Pitts and, you know, created a generation of players that included bassist Christian McBride and Questlove and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. So, you know, he was someone that the scene looked at from a very young age, you know, really at 9, 10 years old. And he delivered on that promise very quickly.


SHAPIRO: And how did other musicians and fans react to the news today?

CHINEN: You know, everyone is devastated. It’s really, really difficult because, you know, as you noted, he was only 51, and also a really universally loved musician, not only for his artistry, but also for his presence, his warmth and his personality, just a wonderful, exuberant guy who made every musical situation so much brighter, you know, he just gave it a boost.


CHINEN: And also, you know, unquestionably the greatest master of his generation on this instrument, you know, someone that we were really looking for as a North Star. And so it’s a huge sense of loss that everyone is feeling right now.

SHAPIRO: This is Nate Chinen from WRTI in Philadelphia, remembering Joey DeFrancesco. Thank you, Nate.

CHINEN: With pleasure.

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Henry R. Wright