A Hammond B-3 organ – 400 pounds of soulful, grooving sound – is not an easy thing for one man to carry on his shoulders. But Joey DeFrancesco has pretty much hauled the B-3 without a whole lot of help.When DeFrancesco started on the B-3, in 1975, the instrument was near the end of a long fade. The B-3, which had first been manufactured by the Chicago-based Hammond company in 1954, pretty much defined the groove jazz genre through the ’50s and into the ’60s. Organists like Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Brother Jack McDuff became groove icons, turning the swirling, gospel-tinged B-3 sound into a hip form of jazz. But with the introduction of electric pianos and the Moog synthesizer, the bulky B-3 started going the way of the dinosaur. In 1974, Hammond halted production of the instrument, and the soulful B-3 sound became a relic.Fortunately, DeFrancesco was unaware of the B-3’s history and its slide into obscurity. In 1974, DeFrancesco was just 4 years old, and all he knew about the B-3 was that he adored the sound. DeFrancesco’s father, “Papa” John DeFrancesco, was an organist who played his B-3 in nightclubs from New York to the family’s native South Philadelphia. The younger DeFrancesco listened to his father’s playing, admired the Jimmy Smith records his father played, and craved the organ sound so much that his parents couldn’t keep him from climbing onto the instrument to play it.”I had no idea what I was getting into. I just loved the sound,” said the 32-year-old DeFrancesco, who performs in a trio – with drummer Byron Landham and guitarist Larry Tamanimi – on Wednesday, June 4, at 7 p.m., in Glenwood Springs’ Two Rivers Park, the opening concert in the Glenwood Springs Summer of Jazz 2003 series. “People like Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff were superstars to me as a kid. The music was very much alive to me even though the instrument was going through a rough time.”Those rough times are largely past. Since DeFrancesco released his first album – 1988’s “All of Me,” on the Columbia label – the B-3 has regained its stature. Much of the return to prominence has taken place in the jam-band world, where players like John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood, Soulive’s Neal Evans, Phish’s Page McConnell and Robert Walter, formerly of the Greyboy Allstars and currently leader of Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, lug their B-3s from gig to gig. But the B-3 is seeing action in a more traditional soul-jazz setting, thanks to players like Larry Goldings. And an old-timer like Jimmy Smith has become a force once again, with his 2000 release “Dot Com Blues,” on the Verve label, featuring such guests as B.B. King and Keb’ Mo.’And as the ultimate evidence of the instrument’s resurgence, the Hammond company began making B-3s again last year, rolling out the first new B-3 model organs in over a quarter-century. DeFrancesco, who seems almost burly enough to literally carry a B-3, isn’t shy about taking a good share of credit for the rise of the B-3. It was his signing to Columbia that kick-started the focus on the instrument. DeFrancesco not only suggested that Hammond restart production of the B-3, but helped design the new model and endorses the product. And last year, DeFrancesco supplanted Smith as best jazz organist/vocalist in Downbeat magazine’s critics poll. “Because of my influence, and bringing the organ back so strong, everybody wanted them again,” said DeFrancesco of Hammond’s decision to manufacture new B-3s. “They’re selling like crazy. They’ll probably be in production for a long time.”No ordinary organistTo DeFrancesco, the mid-’70s were hardly dark days for the Hammond B-3. With the help of his father – a 7-Up district sales manager by day, organist by night – guiding him, DeFrancesco was introduced to all kinds of music at a young age. DeFrancesco listened not only to the B-3 giants, but also John Coltrane, ballad singers and more. “Dad pointed out things he thought were important,” said DeFrancesco, who started playing paying gigs by the time he was 10. “I got the best stuff from everybody coming through a funnel. I just kept piling influences on until I sounded like myself.” DeFrancesco also played piano as a youngster, as schools were not generally equipped with Hammond B-3s. “Which was a good thing, because it made my left hand get strong on chords,” added DeFrancesco, who earned the Philadelphia Jazz Society McCoy Tyner Scholarship – named for the jazz pianist – in 1987, at the age of 16, and was a finalist for the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition. Awards were one thing. But the praise of Miles Davis, and an invitation to join Davis’ band were the highlight of DeFrancesco’s early career. In 1988, fresh out of high school, DeFrancesco was playing in the band for the talk show, “Time Out,” when Davis was a guest on the program. Davis heard DeFrancesco play one chorus of a solo, and inquired who the young organist was. Davis asked DeFrancesco to send him a tape; not long after, the teenage B-3 player was touring with the legendary trumpeter in a band that included such talent as saxophonist Kenny Garrett and keyboardist Adam Holzman. DeFrancesco’s stint with Davis lasted just six months. The brief stay wasn’t due to any flashing of Davis’ notorious temper, but to DeFrancesco’s success. At the age of 18, DeFrancesco was offered a contract to record for Columbia. “Miles understood,” said DeFrancesco. “He told me to leave.”DeFrancesco has released a string of acclaimed CDs over the last 14 years. Each record has done something to show the diversity DeFrancesco brings to the B-3. In 1999, he teamed with fellow Italian-Americans Frank Vignola and Joe Ascione to record “Goodfellas,” an album of Italian and Italian-American standards. That year he also released the live “Incredible!” which featured two tracks that teamed DeFrancesco with Jimmy Smith – the first time Smith had recorded with another organist. Last year’s “Ballads and Blues” was exactly as advertised, and featured guitarist Pat Martino and saxophonist Gary Barth as DeFrancesco’s esteemed sidemen. On July 8, Concord Records will release “Falling in Love Again,” which represents yet another direction for DeFrancesco and his B-3. The album is a collection of standards – “Love For Sale,” “But Not For Me, “Pennies From Heaven” – and features New Jersey singer Joe Doggs. DeFrancesco and his band, including Martino and saxophonist Red Holloway, don’t take a back seat to Doggs’ vocals; instead, “Falling In Love Again” puts the instruments and the singing on equal footing. “It features a singer on it, and that’s something I’ve wanted to do, especially with this singer, for a long time,” said DeFrancesco. “Either you like the way Joe sings or you don’t, but you can’t argue the fact that he knows what he’s doing.”DeFrancesco isn’t certain what style is next on his agenda. But whatever it is, he’s confident it’s going to be good. He might even take on the likes of John Medeski and Robert Walter. “If I ever decided to do a jam-band record, they’d better all watch out,” he said.This much DeFrancesco does know: the Hammond B-3 isn’t about to disappear again. Not on his watch. The instrument has too much to offer.”It’s a very organic sound. It’s a spiritual sound,” he said. “It goes into your being. That’s why it was used in church. People who don’t get the B-3 – there’s something wrong with them.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
Editor’s note: The Aspen Times, in conjunction with Valley Life For All, continues a monthly series of profiles about people in our community who meet challenge with courage and perseverance.