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Remembering Joey DeFrancesco, pioneering Hammond organist who changed jazz music


The jazz world has lost its preeminent specialist of the Hammond organ. Joey DeFrancesco turned 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 member station WRTI in Philadelphia is here to help us remember DeFrancesco. Thanks for taking the time.

NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: You're most welcome.

SHAPIRO: What made his music stand out?

CHINEN: Well, he was just an incredible virtuoso, you know. And the Hammond organ is this very distinctive 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 about his playing, I think about this just locomotive drive, and at the same time, incredible, almost unprecedented finesse. You know, he was just such an incredible technician. But he paired that with this wonderful feeling for connection and, you know, always deeply rooted in the blues.


SHAPIRO: That combination of technical skill and style.

CHINEN: Very much so. You know, he was a student of the instrument, 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 everybody and absorbed it all at a very young age, and then completely synthesized it and took 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 not an exaggeration - Philly jazz royalty.


CHINEN: His father, "Papa" John DeFrancesco, who is still with us, was an accomplished organ player coming up. And so Joey learned firsthand. He's a second-generation Philly jazz organist. He learned not only from his dad, but also from local players like Shirley Scott and Trudy Pitts and, you know, came up with a generation of players that included bassist Christian McBride and Questlove and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. So, you know, he was someone that the scene was watching from a very young age, you know, really like 9, 10 years old. And he fulfilled that promise very quickly.


SHAPIRO: And how have other musicians and fans responded 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 musician really universally beloved, not just for his artistry, but also for his presence and his warmth and personality, just a really wonderful, ebullient guy who made every musical situation feel that much brighter, you know, just gave it a lift.


CHINEN: And also, you know, indisputably the greatest sort of master of his generation on this instrument, you know, someone that we were really looking to as a North Star. And so it's a tremendous sense of loss that everyone feels right now.

SHAPIRO: That's Nate Chinen from WRTI in Philadelphia, remembering Joey DeFrancesco. Thank you, Nate.

CHINEN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.