Joey DeFrancesco’s passing highlights the personal nature of jazz

Jon W poses

“March 1, 2020 – a day I will never forget,” began Instagram post of trumpeter Étienne Charles.

“Creole Soul opened for Joey DeFrancesco, as part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the ‘We Always Swing’ Jazz series at CoMo. On the road I will always see [Joey] tears apart any musical situation, making the instrument he has chosen as his vessel dripping with soul. So, [tonight]we check his set and [it’s] burning. After a few tunes, we were told that the restaurant across the street was about to close, so we [went] there to get Chinese food. As the food arrived, [I received] a text: ‘Do you want to play? Joey was looking for you. I sped out of the restaurant, I went back into the [Blue Note]downstairs [to the dressing room] grabbed my horn and came back up on stage to sit down to a blues. A week later we were all watching everyone fade away, all I could do was think about how much organ Joey had played that night.

There is no other way to say it. A child prodigy turned founder, the unexpected death of avant-garde organist DeFrancesco on August 25 at the age of 51 shocked and deeply saddened the jazz world. I count myself among those who are amazed and upset.

When it comes to jazz, there are a few truisms and axioms. In this case, these two come to mind:

— When you reach the highest level of performance — greatness, essentially — jazz becomes a cottage industry. There are only a limited number of musicians whose art reaches the skies and heavens above. Judging not by me, but by the outpouring of reaction and love from colleagues, peers and others, Joey DeFrancesco certainly falls into this sphere.

– Jazz is personal. I was told a long time ago that I shouldn’t take the disappointments of other interactions with musicians so personally. I remember Sonny Rollins, when I interviewed him, telling me he didn’t like getting close to “criticism”. But even Rollins, who kept a distance, did so to some degree.

I’ve never attributed this, partly because there are too few player-practitioners and they thrive rather than shy away from being accessible to spectators and fans, which ultimately , I am.

And then there’s the reality of the jazz industry, where “crossover” takes on a whole new meaning. Virtually everyone in the inner workings of jazz – out of necessity – wears many hats. Whether the musicians themselves are also producers; whether they are producers who are also writers; whether it’s writers who are also producers and musicians, and so on. The mixing of people within jazz is essential to its well-being, to its survival.

I count myself again – working directly with artists, arranging trips for them, landing bookings for them, serving as a route manager, composing sets of liner notes to accompany their recordings, once broadcasting jazz for a decade, but also overseeing a jazz-centric non-profit and outlining the artists and their work in this space – a small part of the jazz world.

A week ago, Thursday, at 8:31 p.m., while I was sitting outside Top Ten Wines sipping a libation, my phone rang. Given the time, I thought it was my brother updating me on baseball scores, as he and I often do. It turned out to be by Étienne Charles, who himself will appear on December 4 on The Blue Note under the auspices of the Jazz series.

Our conversation went as follows:

Charles: Man…Joey D.

Me of course ! No problem, I said thinking he was joking asking if we could invite DeFrancesco back for a double billing gig.


Me: I’m not sure about your text. Joke (about securing the double bill in light of the gig being the last pre-pandemic presentation of the Jazz series).

Charles: We lost Joey…

Me no!!!!

Charles then sent me a photo I had taken backstage at The Blue Note last March of him sitting with DeFrancesco. I wanted to document it. It was the first, and now the only time, that the two musicians shared the bandstand.

Etienne Charles (trumpet) and Joey DeFrancesco (organ) perform at the Blue Note in March 2020 as part of the "We are still swinging" Jazz series.

The large number of social media posts by artists about DeFrancesco’s passing has been remarkable – a fond memory, a personal tribute, a “how we met”, giving a sense of the significance of the organist and of the multi-instrumentalist as a musical contributor and will remain.

People can just google DeFrancesco’s obituary and read the details of his all-too-short life. Long story short, he was from Springfield, Pennsylvania, basically Philadelphia. His father, “Papa” Joe DeFrancesco, was an organist and launched his son’s career. If you read Christian McBride’s post, you’ll learn that they grew up together, became best friends, attended high school together and remained close and eventually recorded together, the Grammy-winning entry.

Randy Brecker, also originally from Philadelphia, did a standout piece, as did drummer Matt Wilson – who, like Charles, recalled the Dec. 7, 2014 Jazz Series doubleheader gig he and DeFrancesco did at the Murry’s.

Drummer Matt Wilson and multi-instrumentalist Joey DeFrancesco pose outside Murry's after a

Epilogue: text exchange from January 31, 2019

Me: Joey. Cheers. I hope you are well. Foster. See you are in Chi-Town 4/23-4/25 w/Van [Morrison].

Morrison had called DeFrancesco to be on his latest recording, “You’re Driving Me Crazy.” Billed as Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco, the latter’s 39th directed and co-directed outing. They have traveled the world.

Me: Do you think you can invite + 1 a jazz buddy? Tu es. would be fine. Let me know. I’d love it. Thank you Jon

Joey: John [sic], All is well. I’ll loop through Gloria (his wife) on this, and she’ll work to fix it. Now I have a favor. Bring my trio to Colombia in 2019. Gloria will send you info on my new release. Thank you, Pal.

Me: Joey- Greetings. Thank you for your reply. Ask Gloria to send availability statements. Can we have Van as a special guest? No semi-filled with gear, no heavy production…a real jazz gig. Maybe even fundraising for the Jazz Series. Can you pull it off for our 25th season?

Joey: Laughing and ripped emoji.

Me: Nice! I know you can do it!

Jazz. Yeah. It’s personal.

Jon W. Poses is executive director of the “We Always Swing” jazz series. Contact him at

Ada J. Kenney