Joey DeFrancesco, is a remarkable American success story. Signing his first record deal at 16 years old, he has continuously played with some of the most notable names in modern Jazz history. He has placed his indelible mark on Jazz organ playing changing the very way the instrument is being viewed. We had an opportunity to catch up with him in-between his very busy work schedule for some enlightening insights on what makes this modern master tick. What we found was a warm and generous spiritually minded artist willing to speak freely about his success and his passions. We present his interview here for your enjoyment and inspiration! A shout out to Gloria DeFrancesco for coordinating the interview and making it happen!
LBFH: Can you tell us a little bit about the pivotal points in your own journey from being a local player to an international performing artist?
JD: Well, I started playing when I was so young, I started playing when I was around 4 years old, and you know, so it was kind of a natural thing for me. I could do it pretty quick, so by the time I was 6 or 7, I could actually play. I started sitting in with my dad in the Philadelphia area and you know, the word got around and I started getting around more playing with more and more bands like, Hank Mobley. That’s where a lot of that started. You know, I just kept doing what I was doing and I loved what I was doing. That’s what I wanted to do and I realized that that was what I wanted my career to be. I was going to be successful at it. So I continued to do that and when I was 16 years old I got a recording contract with Columbia Records and that was a great thing. When I was 17, I went on the road with Miles Davis, so from there everything just kept growing and growing and moving in a forward motion.
LBFH: What was the inspiration to form your trio?
JD: That’s a very common configuration for the organ, that’s how it started back in the day; it was organ, guitar and drums or organ, saxophone and drums. Very rare that it was a quartet or anything larger than that. So that’s the lineage I followed. But my first group after my record came out and I started touring was a quintet. So I had a trumpet, saxophone, guitar, drums and of course myself. So I have had different configurations, I’ve had quartets, but over the years I settled on the trio. I’ve been playing other things now, mostly the organ but I’ve been playing trumpet and more piano and other keyboards on my shows so I’ve been adding a bass player on those particular numbers. When I’m playing the organ, of course I’m playing my own bass notes, but on those other numbers I’ve been adding the bass, someone has to lay down the bass foundation.
LBFH: How important are the interpersonal dynamics in your band to you?
JD: It’s very important; we go on the road for long periods of time, so we have to be able to get along well. And the chemistry has to be there musically. I’m like a chameleon, most jazz musicians are. You know, because jazz is a label for what we do, but it comes from so many different types of music and there are so many different influences over the years. When you’re playing music that you improvise, there are so many different types of influences that in turn, you have to have a very open mind and position. That’s what’s important to me; get along, play well together and have an open mind. I do a lot of different things musically; it’s not all one thing so it’s important to have versatility and a good feel. So, that’s where I come from. LBFH: Are you comfortable in a studio setting?
JD: Oh yeah, I love the studio. I mean, there’s nothing like live performance as far as the energy level and the things that go on when you’re playing in front of people, but I love being in the studio too. I’m relaxed; I have no issues with that. If there’s a relaxed atmosphere, everything goes well and everyone is grooving, the vibe is good. It’s a great thing and a lot of fun and I don’t approach it any different when I’m playing live, it’s just there’s certain elements of live playing that can’t be explained. Musicians are always going to be more exploratory when playing live than they are going to be in the studio. There’s nothing that inhibits you from really moving in a forward direction. In the studio your more aware of things like the time, but it’s still fun and I enjoy it and feel very loose. I don’t feel uptight or constrained.
LBFH: You’ve stated that your ace in the hole so to speak is your ability to play by ear. Though you did learn theory you seem to rely more on your gift. Has this ever become an obstacle in a band setting or in a collaboration effort?
JD: I learned more how to read in recent years; I started by learning how to play by ear. When you read something, sometimes you have to look at it a long time to remember it. If I learn something by ear, I learn it fast. It’s immediate. A lot of musicians are like that.
LBFH: What was one of the biggest challenges you faced as a musician?
JD: It would be the travel aspect. You know when we go to perform; most musicians will say we get paid to travel. Because you only play for 90 minutes on a show and you might have travelled 14 hours to get there to do that, you know? So, the more you do it, as you get older, it starts to get old. That part of it is a drag. I travel quite well; you know I’m at the point where I travel most of the time in a first class situation. So it makes it a lot easier. But it’s still a lot of wear and tear on the body. Being on the airplane and breathing that air, walking 2 or three miles somewhere to get your luggage. I mean that part; the travel part is the hardest for me. I mean, I’ve been very fortunate because I work a lot. Then there’s all the other normal bullshit that goes on with the business. If it was all about just playing it would be wonderful, but the music business part is where, you know, the way certain people conduct themselves ethically is a little frustrating and disappointing sometimes. But really, that’s the only challenges that I can think of.
LBFH: How much of your day is devoted to working on music?
JD: My mind never stops thinking about music and ideas. I’m always thinking about different way of approaching things. Even now, when I’m talking to you, there’s a melody in my head. Driving down the road, it just never stops, never ending. As far as the actual time on the instrument, that varies. As far as playing the trumpet, it’s every day. That’s something you have to do to keep your embouchure and your chops. With the organ, some days I’ll play for a little while and then some days I’m in there for a really long time. But as far as what goes on in my head, it never stops.
LBFH: What are some of the non- musical related things you enjoy?
JD: I like to smoke cigars (laughs)
LBFH: Outside the house right?
JD: Yeah, of course! I like to hang out with my family. My wife and I just hang out. We’ll go to the beach or we’ll go up north to the cottage in Canada. I love being by the water and love being out on the boat. I also love the desert. We have a home here in Arizona. You know, when I’m playing and touring it gets very intense, you know with travelling and all. I mean we do get times when we have a couple of days off and that’s great. But when I’m not playing I generally like to relax, you know. I like movies too, so that’s what I’m into.
LBFH: You’ve stated that spirituality is an important element in the musical playing experience. What happens in jazz between performer and audience that forms a bond?
JD: Well, I feel very strongly about that. I respect all elements of religion. Everyone has their own beliefs. I am a very strong believer of spirituality. There are people who aren’t very religious at all, I mean I believe in God and I was raised a Christian. I don’t go to a Catholic church or anything like that, but I was raised that way and I believe in God big time. But I know guys that are not, but they’re still very spiritual. So, there’s something that happens whether you want it to or not when you’re in the zone. I call it being in the zone, and you’re playing and everything is just right. You’re doing things that you can’t even do after and you don’t know how you did them, but you played them. It happens in the studio too. When that happens, that’s when you really know that God is in the mix. That’s how I feel, but I’m not one of those fanatics, it’s just how I feel. I think if that element is not in the music, it’s flat and doesn’t do anything. When there’s spirit in the music, nothing can be better. LBFH: There is a real strong sense of spirit and most important a transference of that spirit in jazz music as the music and teachings pass from generation to generation. I recently saw the John Coltrane house in Long Island and was absolutely struck still by the spirit of the place. It was if he was still there. Do you ever feel that haunting, when you play a well travelled venue, you know, that feeling that you’re walking in someone else’s footsteps?
JD: Of course! When I go to Rudy Van Gelder’sand record, that’s what it’s like. Rudy Van Gelder’s is a studio that all of the Blue Note and very prevalent and important records were recorded. That studio is still around and Rudy Van Gelder is like 90 years old now and all those instruments that were used in those sessions are the same ones that are there today. You go in there and record and you’re playing on the same organ that Jimmy Smith and Larry Young and all the great organists that recorded there. Or, you’re playing on the piano that McCoy Tyner played on. There’s a heavy spiritual feeling going on there. It’s strong. It really is amazing.
LBFH: Could you describe what you feel is your greatest contribution to the art form?
JD: I can. I think what I did was I took an instrument that was largely ignored as real straight ahead Jazz instrument and brought it back to some extent. There were guys who were famous, but there was no new face and I was a new face and it made people get interested in the organ again. Also, my strong improvisation and other harmony’s that are involved in the way that I play – a lot of those older guys did play straight ahead jazz but weren’t recognized on a musical level because the organ was kind of second. I think I’ve brought it back to the front and even more important, I think it made people go back and check out the older stuff and recognize that it always was!
LBFH: What do you hope to leave behind as a musician and as a human being?
JD: I’m very prolific and I hope that I leave something for people to continue on. There are already guys who are following in my footsteps and do what I do on the instrument and musically. That’s nice to see. I hope Ii leave a legacy that people will remember and be interested in. Hopefully and most importantly, I hope that everyone will think that I was a pretty good guy.
LBFH: For me a figure that stands out as a giving artist was Louis Armstrong. Might sound like a cliché, but he gave so much love to the world, and in the process brought it right back to himself in waves. JD: Yes – LBFH: Is it important for you to be loved by your audience?
JD: Of course! It’s important to me that they understand what I’m doing and they can be involved with what I’m doing and enjoy it, the way I’m enjoying it. The true artist, it took me years to learn this, you should not play what you think the audience wants to hear. What you should play is what you really enjoy in your heart. If that’s done right, that’s what will be communicated to the audience. It’s the real thing, instead of a contrived thing, like a lot of pop music. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but people go to see it and they want to hear exactly what’s on the record, and that’s that. When you play Jazz, you’re drawing a picture for picture people and if you’re not sincere, the audience isn’t getting the real thing. This is an art, and you want to be giving the best possible art you can true to yourself, not just something that you think they might like.
LBFH: Christian McBride told us in an interview that he has a passion for making jazz more accessible to put a friendlier face on it and to draw the audience in more. As kindred spirits, do you share that passion?
JD: Yeah, well I have fun when I play. I can’t help but smile because I’m doing what I love. That’s what Louis Armstrong did; he smiled all the time because he was doing what he loved. That’s what hooks people. Even Miles Davis, as straight as he was, he cracked smiles too. I ‘m not trying to entertain, it’s a natural thing, you know?
LBFH: What is the next big evolutionary step for you?
JD: The big thing for me is to keep moving forward and to keep gaining an audience. I’m not trying to make millions and millions of dollars, I would just like the music to be more accepted and reach a wider range of people, all ages. This is great music and it comes from this great country that we live in. I want it to be part of the awareness for people and to continue to work and play so people can enjoy it.
LBFH: What words of wisdom would you give to all of the musicians working in communities and on the local scene?
JD: Keep it together, keep playing and stay strong. If you keep working on what you’re doing and if you keep trying to be better at what you do, people are going to notice. Excellence can’t be ignored. So you have to keep at it. No matter what gig it is, try to play with better musicians. Eventually, things will come through and you’ll work and be happy.
LBFH: Any new projects you would like to let the readers know about?
JD: I have new record coming out in June on Blue Note that I co wrote with Bobby Hutcherson , Billy Hart and David Sanborn that’s really cool. I also have another record coming out early next year also on Blue Note and I’m excited about that too. LBFH: We’ll keep an eye and an ear out for sure!
About the interviewer:
Thomas Mangano is a composer and a performer living on Long Island, NY. He is the owner of a production services company that provides music, soundscapes and effects to professionals in film and media industries. He is also the founding member of the Boutcher/Mangano Jazz Trio and currently serves as the Music Director for the Custer Observatory.
To learn more about Thomas, Please visit hi website: Thomasmangano.com