Good Vibrations: Joey DeFrancesco brings his Hammond to St. Cecilia

Joey DeFrancesco, a third-generation jazz musician, has been perfecting his unique blend of jazz, soul and blues for more than 40 years. Born in Philadelphia, DeFrancesco got his start on the organ at age four and began playing shows at five when his dad, “Papa” John DeFrancesco, invited him to sit in on sets.

By age 10, he was playing with bands opening for legendary acts like B. B. King and Wynton Marsalis. At 16, he signed his first record contract with Columbia, joined Miles Davis’ band for a European tour, and, inspired by Davis, picked up the trumpet himself. By 18, he had already founded his own band, cut a few albums, and took the first steps of his long and successful music career. His is a life shaped and molded by the beauty of music. For DeFrancesco, “It’s music that makes everything better.” 

Speaking with DeFrancesco, it’s clear all of his experiences, including these opportunities, deeply inform his work and process. For someone whose entire life has seemingly revolved around jazz, DeFrancesco describes music as something akin to a spiritual experience. His process involves distilling these experiences into sound, transmuting emotion into music.

“It’s about being in touch with your surroundings: what’s happening, the world, the universe and letting that flow through you. When the music flows through you, it’s a direct conduit for all of those things, ” DeFrancesco said. 

He consistently emphasizes taking in what he’s experiencing in that moment to create his work, but there’s also a focus on pushing the genre beyond where it’s been. 

“I have to move forward,” said DeFrancesco in reference to his evolving sound. 

And move forward he has, releasing more than 30 records and innovating while simultaneously remaining connected to his traditional jazz roots. 

As an organist, it’s understandable why DeFrancesco is a self-described “strong believer in tradition.”

“You have to have a basis,” he said. “It’s like a language. It’s like learning how to speak. You learn a vocabulary.” 

Without that commonality, it can be difficult to communicate musically, for audiences to tune in to his message of connectedness and unity. But while he respects tradition, DeFrancesco emphasized that perhaps more important is the need to stay true to oneself. 

“Once you get the technique, then you’re free,” he said.

That freedom bought by refining technique has certainly earned DeFrancesco his Grammy nominations, a mark on jazz history and a sound of his own. 

For musicians like DeFrancesco, using old school instrumentation or playing classic songs doesn’t stop them from taking a modern approach, and audiences have responded positively. His career represents a living, thriving connection to the jazz legends of old, and his choice to stay true to his roots and play the organ has helped inspire a renaissance of sorts around the instrument. 

St. Cecilia Music Center’s Executive Director Cathy Holbrook thinks his group’s sound “is bound to have guests swinging in their seats.”

“Their amazing jazz, blues, soul sound will really speak to the hearts of true jazz lovers and it’s something different than we have featured in the past, with Joey on the Hammond B3 Organ,” Holbrook said. 

Jazz fans and organ aficionados would be wise to check out St. Cecilia’s Jazz Spectacular on Feb. 7, as DeFrancesco and his quartet, The People, will be performing songs from his Grammy-nominated 2017 release, Project Freedom

The intimate atmosphere of St. Cecilia offers advantages beyond the warm sound of the theater — after the performance, DeFrancesco is set to appear in an after-concert reception, available to all attendants. 

With DeFrancesco on the keys, fans can expect a spiritual experience with his unique, yet classic organ sound, a few trumpet selections, and maybe a song or two from his upcoming March 1 release. 

DeFrancesco himself is looking forward to “an evening of a lot of energy and good vibes.” 


Joey DeFrancesco
St. Cecilia Music Center
24 Ransom Ave. NE, 
Grand Rapids
Feb. 7, 7:30 p.m.