Hometown Hero: Joey DeFrancesco

By Suzanne Cloud | Photo by Michael Woodall

The story goes like this: Philadelphia pianist Eddie Green led a jam session at the Not Quite Cricket room at the Latham Hotel every Sunday, and it was always packed. One night a 9-year-old kid came in with his parents and wanted to sit in on piano. Humoring the kid, Green chuckled and retired to the bar to let the rest of his rhythm section, bassist Steve Beskrone and drummer Nicky Ciminale, handle it. The kid sat down at the piano, counted off “Billie’s Bounce,” and the rest was history. 

Within a year from that night, organist Joey DeFrancesco would be sitting in with saxophonist Hank Mobley and drummer Philly Joe Jones, who realized right away this young jazzman was going places. By the age of 16, DeFrancesco secured a recording contract with Columbia Records and single-handedly brought back the popularity of Hammond B-3 jazz in the 1980s, joining a long line of  Philly organ luminaries in the city’s pantheon of monster B-3 players—Shirley Scott, Jimmy Smith, Don Patterson, Groove Holmes, Jimmy McGriff, and Trudy Pitts among them. 

It was a heady time, touring and recording with Miles Davis—who inspired him to take up the trumpet—and recording his first album, All of Me, to be followed by Where Were You in 1990, Part III in 1991, Reboppin in 1992, and Live at the 5 Spot in 1993. Soon, DeFrancesco was collaborating with guitarist John McLaughlin, eventually forming a group with him called “The Free Spirits” that lasted 4 years and resulted in several albums, including After the Rain and Live in Tokyo.

But by 2000, DeFrancesco was back to his Philly roots bringing his idol Jimmy Smith onstage with him for the album Incredible! Live at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. His trio at the time, which featured Philadelphia drummer Byron Landham and guitarist Paul Bollenbeck, turned out The Philadelphia Connection: A Tribute to Don Patterson, an album hailing the artistry of an organist who made his home in Philly the last decade of his life. 

DeFranceso says, “Philadelphia has an incredible jazz legacy, second to none.”

“Philadelphia has an incredible jazz legacy, second to none.”

The Philly powerhouse has won the Downbeat Critics Poll nine times, the Readers Poll every year since 2005, and became a Hammond Organ Hall of Fame inductee in 2013. DeFrancesco has won five Grammy nominations to date and won a star on Philly’s Walk of Fame on the Avenue of the Arts in 2016.

To finish the story that opened this Hometown Hero profile, a story that has become part of the standard jazz lore of our city, the incredibly young lad surprised everyone in the club, and brought the house down, eliciting torrents of applause and hoots. After the uproar died down, Eddie Green slowly got up from the bar with his drink, walked over to the piano, and bent down to this new prodigy on the scene. He smiled and said, “Go to your room!” The audience exploded again in appreciation of the historic moment of an old head welcoming the future. I know. I was there.

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