When it comes to narrative arcs, few are more compelling than the story of two people on separate life paths who eventually connect and create something unexpected. Often, the two then travel in very different directions afterward. This is the trope that guides every version of A Star Is Born. It’s the story of Gil Evans and Miles Davis in the ’50s. And it’s the basis for many, many other vibrant collaborations in the creative arts.
It also informs the story of how Joey DeFrancesco came to revisit the iconic jazz anthem “The Creator Has a Master Plan” with its original architect, Pharoah Sanders, 50 years after its original release; you can hear the results on DeFrancesco’s latest album for Mack Avenue, In the Key of the Universe. This was not a partnership that most people predicted, but if you’d been paying attention to each of their musical journeys, it made complete sense. Converging across generations, genres, and circumstances, the 78-year-old Sanders and 47-year-old DeFrancesco ultimately came to collaborate through their shared love for jazz—and produced music that crackles with energy.
Growing up in a white and largely Italian neighborhood of South Philadelphia, Joey DeFrancesco was raised with jazz in the house, in the clubs, and in the air. His grandfather played sax and his organist father listened religiously to not only classic jazz, but also some of the more adventurous sounds of the ’60s and ’70s. The young Joey soon picked up the organ too, and was playing publicly before his teen years. But unlike many child prodigies who burned out, DeFrancesco simply burned on, and he eventually developed into perhaps the greatest jazz organist of his time. It didn’t hurt that he was encouraged and supported by his family and the local jazz community from day one.
The Philadelphia of DeFrancesco’s youth—the late ’70s and ’80s—was still quite segregated, but music provided him with a passport to neighborhoods and venues that might have been off limits for other youngsters with his demographic profile. There was Dino’s in West Philly, and Gert’s on South Street, and Jewel’s in North Philly. “You didn’t play at Gert’s unless you played organ,” DeFrancesco recalls. “It was like, the organ took half the club up. Jewel’s, they brought everybody, and I became like the house player as a kid. They had two rooms, the front room and the big room in the back, which would have Art Blakey or Freddie Hubbard, cats like that.”
What still amazes him is how well he was treated: “Like a king, man. Everybody treated me great. I got the gig at Gert’s to fill in for Don Patterson when I was 10 years old. The owner, Gert, lived upstairs, so on the break I’d go up there and she’d be giving me milk and cookies and stuff. And that’s where I met Shirley Scott. Before Shirley heard me play, she was in the back garden area. [Jazz organist] Trudy Pitts was in the club that night too, and I guess Shirley went, ‘Who’s playing? Trudy?’ And they said, ‘No, that’s that little boy, Joey.’ She went—this is what people told me—‘That child can play!’ So that was the environment I was in, and it was the best.” Already in these early years, a pattern had been established of seeking out and collaborating with elders, earning and returning their respect.
DeFrancesco went to the local creative and performing arts high school—CAPA—where he studied, to use the term loosely, with the likes of Christian McBride, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Questlove, and the future Boyz II Men. (Check out Shaun Brady’s excellent oral history of that period in the April 2018 issue of JazzTimes.) While there he was wooed onto the road by no less than Miles Davis, who became yet another elder mentor. The fast track to success was in sight.