Keyboardist John Defrancesco of Local 586 (Phoenix, AZ) started on clarinet. “But I saw Louis Armstrong play, and I said, ‘Man, I want to play the trumpet!’ Louie inspired me on the horn. I had all those old 78s. There was one called the ‘12th Street Rag.’ I’ll never forget it.” He hums, “Babaa do ba dupe.”
At 16 years old, the Niagara Falls, New York, native joined AFM. “It was a powerful thing when I was a kid,” he says.
His father Joseph was a musician, too, a reed man. “Back in the day, he played with the Dorsey brothers, when they were young, before they were popular,” he recalls. “I remember dad saying they would argue all the time.”
Defrancesco was still a teenager when he first heard Jimmy Smith playing his famous Hammond B-3 in Buffalo, New York. He says, “I heard that organ and it was just so spiritual. I was playing trumpet at the time, but when I heard that organ and Jimmy and the band—the groove, it sounded so heavy.”
With a powerful instrument like the B-3, he says, “A musician uses all his limbs. Your brain is working extra hard playing chords, bass lines, and harmony changes.” It would be a few years before Defrancesco began playing the B-3 full time.
Laughing, he says, “My wife bought me an organ because it’s all I ever talked about.” From then on, hard bop and deep groove would define his sound. He quit trumpet, and after months of steady practice, he was ready to showcase his skill.
He moved from western New York to Philadelphia in 1967, and immersed himself in its vibrant jazz community. It was there he and his wife, Laurene, raised their family.
“Jazz was the music of the house and the organ music was at the top. We used to listen to all the cats—Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott,” Defrancesco says. He played around Philly and on the Jersey Shore, between three and four nights a week, plus festivals—which meant hauling the 325-pound organ to and from gigs.
“One time, it slipped and chased us down the stairs,” he says. “I flipped it, tightened the tubes, and went right to work.”
To think Defrancesco’s first love was aviation. “Originally, I wanted to be a pilot,” he laughs. “You get wrapped up in music and it takes everything away from you. In a good way,” he adds. “When you’re playing it’s so enjoyable. The bad time is when you’re not playing, of course, but that’s the business.”
In 1979, he put his career on hold to spend time with his kids. By then, his son Joey, just eight years old, was a prodigy on the organ, and his father was his music teacher. At 17, Joey was offered a rare chance to tour as a member of Miles Davis’ band. John resumed performing and recording, which eventually included his sons. It was at this point Defrancesco adopted the moniker “Papa John.”
With a playing career of more than 50 years behind him, Papa John lives far from the Philly music scene where he made his name. In Maricopa, Arizona, he still performs and occasionally does out-of-town gigs. He plays around Phoenix and at the union hall, with Jerry Donato, also of Local 586.
Before Jimmy Smith died, in 2005, Defrancesco was able to perform and spend time with the B-3 legend. Defrancesco says he tries to keep the music alive—but he needn’t worry. Thanks to Papa John’s example, inspiration, and mentoring, the Defrancesco name remains synonymous with soulful jazz organ mastery.