Words seem to be shallow, and even the act of writing falls short of expressing the heartbreak I have experienced over losing a young musical genius who has been in my life since he was 11 years old. On further consideration and from a therapeutic perspective, I would like to share a few episodic memories of my association with Joey DeFrancesco.
I was introduced to Joey when his father John DeFrancesco asked me if he could bring his 11-year old son to audition for my Rohm and Haas Jazz Ensemble at Settlement Music School—the ensemble consisted of advanced students from the Better Break Summer Music Camp. At first glance, I was a little amused at this little kid, who was four to five years younger than the other students in our ensemble. I asked his father inquisitively, “what can the young man play?”
“He can play the tune your ensemble just finished,” said John. The tune was a blues, “Sonny Moon for Two.” We were all amazed by this little kid with the Beatles haircut, his legs dangling in rhythm from the piano stool. Not only did Joey play the tune, he took an amazing improvised solo.
Without hesitation, Joey was inducted into my first ensemble, which consisted of Robert Landham, alto; Louis Taylor, alto; Henry McMillion, trumpet; Kevin Outterbridge, drums; Kevin Nathaniel, guitar; and Leonard Richardson, bass. Shortly after Joey’s induction into the ensemble, an even younger student who became Joey’s close buddy mainly because they were the youngest of the group, Christian McBride, joined the ensemble. All the players were talented instrumentalists. Joey and Christian were musical sponges and the sponges never missed a rehearsal. Sometimes it was just the three of us.
Flash forward to the present. As established stars, the dynamic duo continued to thrill audiences. I’m so happy to have attended their amazing weekend at the Blue Note performing with The Philadelphia Story, featuring Joey DeFrancesco, Christian McBride, Little John Roberts, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, which featured an unbelievably soulful sit-in by Jaleel Shaw. What a night!
I will also never forget Joey and Christian’s performance at the Montclair Jazz Festival, when both geniuses acknowledged me in the audience of thousands as their jazz band teacher. All I could say was, “It don’t get any better than this.”
I have been blessed to have had so many unforgettable experiences with great young musicians and their families, that sometimes I get overwhelmed by the joy and pride these young artists have brought into my life.
I will always remember the image of Papa John bringing a young Joey into my ensemble and into my life.