JA: Fred, think of this. If you are competitive, I have never forgotten the first time I went to the gym. There was this skinny fella who I went three rounds with and he really worked me over. I wound up sparing with him for the next three or four years and he became one of the state champions of Philadelphia. The mentality is not only in sports. Think about this. You study and practice hard and it is taken away from you. What do you do? You can't quit. I can't quit. Look at my hands. Right now, they can't understand why I am willing to go through this again.
You know, Fred, you can't play as many hours as I did and play with some of the greatest players who ever lived, being in that league is really something special. I didn't get there because of talent. My talent was in sports. I got there because of very, very hard work. There is no way I could quit. If I didn't play, I would just have sore hands for the rest of my life and they would aggravate me when I would do some lifting or moving or something. They are still sore. I can't live that way. I put too many hours into it. I have written two textbooks. I have written a book on jazz harmony called Harmonic Foundation for Jazz and Popular Music and I have written a book on jazz improvisation, Jazz Improv: How to Play It and Teach It. I have put a lot of time in.
When my hands went, I was working a job at the Copacabana. I had the job at the Copacabana in 1960. I left Woody's band in 1959. Here I am in the big city and I have the gig. I have one of the best paying jobs in the entire city. It got to be so bad that I got up one morning and I couldn't get dressed. I just couldn't get dressed. I had a marvelous drummer, who have notice that he was playing with the Johnny Mathis band. I told him that I had gone to see a doctor and he didn't know if I would play again. I told him to get somebody and he got Hank Jones. He got one of the greatest pianists who ever lived to play the gig and I went back to Philadelphia.
There were eighteen, nineteen hours of the day that I didn't know what to do. What am I supposed to do with that? So I kept seeking advice about what I was going to do about my hands and they thought I was crazy because nobody ever had a problem back then in 1957 when I did. Everybody thought it was psychosomatic. Who has those kinds of problems? There was only one hand surgeon in the city of Philadelphia and there was less than one hundred in all the world. To make a long story short, I went to the University of Pennsylvania and went to the operating room seven days in a row, where they injected me in the neck with some material. What they were trying to do was could they numb the nerves on the bottom of my hand by injecting me with this substance in the neck because if it did work, I would only have pain on the top of my hands so I could play the keys. They brought a piano into the University of Pennsylvania Hospital for me to play. I had to play with bad hands so they could see that when I went up to the operating room and they would give me this injection and the next day, I would try to play. It killed my hands.
When I was in the hospital, I started to write some music and I sent it to Steve Allen and Steve Allen and I, through the years, have written music together. In fact, Fred, on my first album (Always with Me), 'Always with Me' is an original composition that I had written and dedicated to my father and Steve Allen wrote the lyrics to that. I am still trying to play today. I try to go to the piano and if I play and I am sore, I may have to lay off for two, three, four weeks. When I play, it is maybe ten minutes of playing and that is if I can play. If I am sore, I can't play at all and maybe a month will go by and that is the way it is. I used a trio on my latest album ( In a Trio Setting: A Tribute to Frank Sinatra ) and did one tune every six months. One take and that is it. No practice and no rehearsal. I can't do it.
FJ: Half a century has passed. With the advancement of technology and medicine, is there a comfort for your pain?
JA: Well, there is some new medicine that came out and it was given to me by my hand surgeon, but as soon as I try to play and I go past that four or five minutes. Nothing is going to take care of that. Every night before I go to bed, I dip my hands in wax. I use it for half an hour and I wake up and do it again, maybe three or four times a night. That is it. The other thing is, when you have inflammation of the tendons and you have had this kind of surgery, they have done what they could do. When I use my hands, they flare up because of the inflammation.