Joey DeFrancesco was my oldest friend in music. We first met at the Settlement Music School as part of their jazz program that Mr. Lovett Hines ran, and we instantly became best friends. I was 12, he was 13. It stayed that way through our next four years together at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts [CAPA]. We were inseparable.
At CAPA, from the time we were freshman, Joey and I got called to do just about every showcase that had anything to do with the school around the city, so we were always getting time off from class. As teenage high school students would do, as you can imagine, we would use that to our advantage. Joey and I were always in the principal’s office because our teachers started to figure out we weren’t really rehearsing for a showcase when we said we had to leave class. But we never wasted time when we ditched class, we practiced hard. So hard, Joey, of course, wound up getting the gig with Miles Davis at the beginning of our senior year.
When he got back from the tour with Miles, Joey said, “I’m gonna learn to play the trumpet.” I said, “For what?” And he said, “I just wanna play the trumpet.” I suspected the Miles bug bit him extra hard. Next thing I know, he’s not only picking up the trumpet, but he’s playing the hell out of that thing. I always admired the fact that he was such a fast learner, and such a sponge. He could learn anything in a millisecond, and he did it without overanalyzing. He just had a real knack for getting straight to the feeling of everything. I think that’s the Philly in us.
When we graduated, I moved to New York and Joey moved to Arizona (Scottsdale, I believe) and I remember thinking, “Arizona?…What?” They always say, if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere, so I wanted to go to New York. But Joey was ahead of the curve. Arizona wasn’t a hotspot for musicians in ’89 like it is now, he got on the trend 20 years early. He eventually started a family there and brought his parents out too. I always deeply respected that he was such a family man. Ultimately, Joey didn’t have to be in New York to be a boss. He was just an extra bad cat that didn’t even have to be around for everyone to know he was the boss. You gotta be an ultra bad man to do that.
Even though we were no longer together every day, Joey and I were still best of friends even though we were 2,500 miles apart. We would run into each other on the road all the time and I would always be so happy to see him. In fact, I first connected with my wife Melissa when I went to see Joey at the Jazz Standard back in ’03. Joey and I would see each other on the Jazz Cruise every year, and one year we were on the cruise and spending time together and I said, “Man, how is it that we’ve been best friends all these years and we’ve only played on like two or three records together?” And he said, “You’re right man, we need to do something about that.” That was when we hatched the idea for ‘For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver’ with Mark Whitfield, which we recorded shortly after in 2019. It also won a GRAMMY. We couldn’t have been more excited.
We did a few gigs together after that. We got the small group together with Mark and Quincy Phillips on drums to perform some of the music from that record at the Montclair Jazz Festival later that summer. We burned it up that day. We also did a Philly Reunion gig in 2020 at the Blue Note with Kurt Rosenwinkel and Lil John Roberts. This gig felt so good because so many of our mentors and teachers from back home showed up: Dr. George Allen, Bill Whitaker, Lovett Hines, and others. The last time we played together was in October ‘21 back home in Philly with the Temple Big Band honoring the legacy of another Philly icon, Jimmy Heath.
I’ve never had a problem saying that Joey DeFrancesco was hands down the most creative and influential organist since Jimmy Smith. In terms of taking the organ to the next level and making it popular again for a younger generation, no one did it like Joey. He truly set a new bar and his legacy will live on as such.
– Christian McBride