A Fireside Chat With Jimmy Amadie
“ I used a trio on my latest album... and did one tune every six months. One take and that is it. No practice and no rehearsal. I can?t do it. ”
To say that Jimmy Amadie is 'remarkable' would be an understatement. Amadie has suffered from sever tendentious for the better part of his life and virtually twice my own. This kind of pain has been career ending in sports. What makes his story even more 'remarkable' is Amadie is not a wide receiver for the Eagles. He is a pianist, a jazz pianist. His hands are his tools to his trade and they barely function. Amadie's 'remarkable' journey is one littered with lessons in courage and drive. And perhaps, in the end, you too will see that the word 'remarkable' does little justice for this man, certainly, a man among men. Allow me to present, pianist Jimmy Amadie, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Jimmy Amadie: You know, Fred, when I was younger, I played ball. I played a lot of baseball and football. In fact, I played organized sports, football for seven years and baseball for eight years. I played with Lee Elia who eventually became the manager of the Phillies. I played with a lot of fellas who eventually were in the high minors and the majors. Unfortunately, I happened to get hurt when I was in my junior year of high school and that took care of my aspirations to do any playing whatsoever. I also boxed for a boys club. I broke my hand three times there and so I couldn't box anymore. I couldn't play sports. My father was a guitarist and so I just transferred my thoughts and ideas over to something else, to channel them elsewhere. My father was a terrific mentor and he was a guitarist and he said, 'The first person they call when they need for a musician is a pianist. I think you should study the piano.' I took his advice and the rest is history.
FJ: You played with some heavyweights along the way.
JA: I played with Red Rodney after Red left Charlie Parker's group. I played with Red Rodney. Coleman Hawkins played with my trio. I went into Woody Herman's band in 1959 and then after that, I was Mel Torme's accompanist off and on for about three years. But my hands bothered me. My hands really bothered me. The problem I had with my hands started in 1957 and I persevered up until 1960.
FJ: So the entire time you were playing with the 'Velvet Fog,' you were playing through pain.
JA: Oh, my hands were sore.
FJ: Was this in large part from your participation in organized sports and the subsequent injuries you sustained?
JA: Well, I don't think it helped. When I started to play, I transferred all my energies from one to the other. Eventually, there were days that I would play six, seven, eight, twelve hours and when I was playing as a young professional, sometimes I would have two gigs on a day and a concert that night. I would go up to New York and do a concert and then come back to Philadelphia and do another. You can't abuse your hands. I would wind up playing seventy, eighty hours a week. That is not practice. That is playing gigs and practicing. It all came back to me.
When you are young, Fred, you can do anything. You think you can. You break something and it heals in five, six, seven weeks. Look at the ball players. They break an ankle and tibia bone and two months, three months, they are better. It was the same with me. When you are in terrific shape, I have been in shape all my life. I swim three or four days now. I do a mile a day. What happens as you get older, the ailments came back. My ailments came back early because I had a lot of pressure on my hands from playing ball. I played ten days with a broken left hand. We had a playoff and the championship series in Philadelphia and I played ten days. I was taken to the hospital and they fixed a broken and fractured hand. That healed after a certain amount of months and then I went back to playing ball and putting pressure on it. Then when I went to the gym, I hit someone in boxing and I broke it again. I was boxing again and I hit someone with my right hand and I fractured my third finger. And these are the fingers and problems that go with the tendentious I have. It is not just the one finger. It's the tendons in both hands.
You know, Fred, I have had six operations for reconstructive surgery. Both inside of the hands and then I had it for the palm of my left hand and they had to rebuild that. Then in the back of both of my hands, they reconstructed both my wrists because I had a problem there. I had bone that was being strangled by tendons. And then my forearm went and they did my forearm. This adds up. When you play, you have to deal with all the scar tissue you have, but you are left with tendentious. It is a disease of the tendons as opposed to arthritis, which is the disease of the bone. This is what happens. It is very, very difficult playing. I certainly can't play the piano when I want to play. So I am always practicing and playing in my head. In my head, I can play anything.
FJ: Playing armchair psychiatrist, being in such pain, why continue playing? It seems almost masochistic.
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.
What helps me now and I hate to say this are the injections. I avoided injections for forty years because a lot of times, the injections can tear down something rather than build it up. Right now, I beg for them. I call him on the phone and tell him that I am in excruciating pain. I go see him the next day and he treats me and does what he can for me. He has the bottom line. I tell him how I am feeling and he makes the decision. To do that record date, both of my thumbs went before I even did it and my forearm was bad. I told the doctor that I needed two more tunes for the album and I was going to play live with the rhythm section. So he gave me five injections, two on the forearms, one in each thumb, and one in the third finger of my right hand. Three weeks went by. Sure my hands were sore from the injections, but the eleven minutes I played, I played one tune and took a half an hour off and wrote an introduction and ending because we had nothing planned. I didn't even know if I was going to be able to play. We didn't even have a run through. I didn't even touch the piano until we played. Was it worth it? Yes, it was worth it. That was Monday. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, I was in bed. I couldn't lift my arms up. I was exhausted. You know what? I am going to do it again.
FJ: There is a fine line between courage and insanity. This almost sounds as if you have blown past the courage line and are marching up the path of insanity, an unhealthy obsession.
JA: Well, you know, Fred. When I go into that record studio, once I sit down at the piano, forget about it. There is no ifs, ands, or buts. If it is too hot in the kitchen, get out of the kitchen. This is my own choice. Can you imagine spending all of your life and getting to the point where you can do what you want? Fred, when I am at the piano, I can do what I want. I can't give that up. I can't give that up without a fight. Look, Fred, I have had two bad hands knowingly, but guess what, if I was cornered what do you think I am going to do? Run? I am going to fight, Fred. I will tell you something, whoever it is, he better know how to fight or he is going to have a big problem. I am not stopping. This is my attitude. I am playing and it is as simple as that. I have been off six or seven months.
I am writing new music and plus the standards and I will go back and try to play those ten or eleven minutes. I cannot give this up. It is as simple as that. Now, if I tried to play everyday, I am a basket case. I know I can't do it. So I play in my head everyday. I practice in my head. I teach and I lecture. I am doing the best that I can. I don't play the piano for anybody. I play the piano to find out where I am, so when I go with the trio, I know I am going to be able to play. It is a catch twenty-two situation. Let's say I don't touch the piano for five or six weeks because I am sore. When I go to the piano, at some point, I have to find out if I can get up to world class playing. When you play, you get hurt, but if I cannot get up to world class playing in one or two playings, I can't do the record date. I need to get to that type of playing and as long as I can get to that type of playing, you can rest assured, the pain is worth it for me. For someone else, that is something else, but when I go out, nobody sees me in pain. Nobody sees me doubled over or wearing a white flag. Nobody knows anything, Fred, and that is the way it should be.
FJ: You are from a different generation. They don't make them like you anymore.
JA: I will tell you something. I am from the old school. My father had a seventh grade education. That is all he had because he used to take care of his parents when they came from Italy. What my father did, he became self-educated. He used to read until five in the morning. He would help himself. When he retired at sixty-two, he had almost three hundred people working for him. He passed every test because of his studying. He taught me the most important thing about life is integrity and character and respect. If you don't have it, you can forget about it. That is what this is about. Whatever I do, you can rest assured, Fred, it will be the best that I can.
Jimmy Amadie - In A Trio Setting: A Tribute To Frank Sinatra