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Jimmy Bruno's stature as one of jazz's top hard bop guitarist is undisputed. His career as a musician and educator warrants the numerous times that he has been interviewed at All About Jazz. In this interview with AAJ contributor Edward Zucker, Bruno discusses his current CD, Maplewood Avenue (Affiliated Artists, LLC, 2007), the Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute, carpal tunnel surgery and a near carjacking. He also offers his uncensored opinion on numerous other topics.
All About Jazz: When did you first notice, and what were the symptoms of, carpal tunnel syndrome?
Jimmy Bruno: I did not know what it was at first. It was about ten years ago, I was getting a tingling, and it started in the left hand, when I was standing up playing. It did not affect my ability to move my fingers but it gradually got worse. The next stage was about five years ago, when my fingers started falling asleep. That was when I started to get worried. Then it started to go to the right hand, the same thing. This would happen toward the end or middle of the night of playing. Then I started to notice I would play three bars and my hand was numb a bit; I could always move my fingers which was strange, because it didn't affect my playing. It became painful, and would wake me up at night. Then I would play three bars, and would get this awful pain in my hands.
That is when I went to the doctor; I went to Dr. Klein, who is a guitarist, a good friend of mine. He set up appointments for me, two of his friends that are hand specialists, and one was a specialist in arthritis. They wanted to make sure it was not arthritis or a pinched nerve. They confirmed that it was carpal tunnel through a test, where they put needles in your hands and shock you with an electric current down your arm, which goes into a laptop. The needles were in my hand and it measured the speed from the electric current and how long it took to go down there. The carpal tunnel on the left hand was 90% blocked and right hand was not too bad, like 60%. The next step was going in for minor surgery. To get an appointment can take six to seven months. I went to Dr. Thoder, he saw me right away, and I had the surgery a few days later. It is a fifteen-minute surgery and it is nothing. You cannot see the scar anymore.
While he was in there, he also noticed that I had a trigger finger and he fixed that as well. The procedure took fifteen minutes. I had a cast for about six weeks and that was a drag. Prior to the surgery, when I was in the process of being diagnosed, the specialist advised that I not play for a little until they knew what it was. I lost a total of about six months. After the surgery, I was in a cast for about six weeks. When I started to play the guitar again, it was fine. I feel like I have a new left hand.
AAJ: Did the surgery affect your playing style?
JB: No, it did not. The odd thing is that it went away in the right hand. They told me that it happens from time to time and they do not know why but it is not unusual for it to go away.
AAJ: Did you speak to any other musicians; I remember Dena DeRose had something similar a few years ago.
JB: I was talking to other musicians that had various hand problems, and people on the internet were emailing me, but I quickly realized that that is the worst thing that you can do because they may not have had the same thing as you. Carpal tunnel is different for everyone. If I was not a guitarist, it may not have mattered. To tell you the truth, I was pretty disgusted with the whole music business anyway. So I thought, "This is great, now I am out." It sounds like a sick thing to say, but at that point I was so disgusted with the business that I did not give a shit.
AAJ: Do you remember the exact date of the surgery?
JB: February 14, 2008, will be two years.
Carjacking and Guns
AAJ: What other interests do you have outside of jazz? What path do you think you would have pursued if the surgery did not work, if you could not play again?
JB: I was planning to buy a gun range. I like to shoot competitively. I shoot paper; I do not kill anything and have no desire to do so. In a roundabout way, I was introduced to that sport, competition shooting. I was in negotiations with a local range. Either that or go into photography which is another hobby of mine that I love doing
AAJ: Photography I understand, but you have to explain to me how you make the transition from jazz musician to gun range owner.
JB: I was carjacked one Friday night. The carjackers did not get the car and I escaped.
AAJ: When and where did this occur?
JB: 30th Street train station in Philadelphia, about three years ago. It was frightening; I have been afraid before, but this was wow, you could die and I came close. I had just bought a brand new Mercedes-Benz, it was the second day I had the car, and I took it to work on a Friday night. Two cars pulled up next to me and several guys got out and approached my car with tire irons in their hands and they were about to smash the front windshield. I just hit the gas and somehow managed not to hit anyone. I got on the highway, and I was doing a hundred miles an hour, and I could not take my foot off the accelerator, it was the adrenaline. My car was swerving all over the highway, I could not steer and then I saw my exit and I somehow I slowed down until I could get off the highway.
When I came home, I drank half a bottle of scotch. My wife said that I needed to call the police. I told my wife that that I could not even walk or talk, and I could not call the police. Something like that stays with you; it started to eat at me. Every time I came to a stop sign, I would look around, so I decided I needed to get a gun. I went to a gun range in Bucks County, PA. There I met this great guy, Ed Hartzell. If you do not know about guns, they can be very intimidating, and I did not know anything. At the range, I said I wanted to buy a gun. Ed asked, "Why do you want a gun?" He finally agreed to sell me a gun, but insisted he teach me how to use the gun.
I bought a Glock 19, and I brought it home, but did not want to tell my wife since she is very anti-gun. I am looking at the gun and the ammo, and I am scared to death of the gun. I started thinking, what did I do, and I went back to the gun store several days later and said, "You need to show me how to shoot this thing." Until then, I was scared to death of guns. If there were a gun in the room, I would get as far from the thing as possible. I took numerous lessons and began to notice improvement; it takes a ton of practice, like anything else. It is also an expensive hobby.
From there I obtained a permit to carry, once I was sure that I would not shoot myself in the foot. The more lessons I took, the more I got into the sport of competitive shooting. Nowadays, I do not think much about the carjacking, or needing a gun for self-defense. It is just nice to know that if someone ever broke into my house, I would know how to use a gun. I was amazed at how much is involved in owning a gun, and the responsibility, so I would not recommend it to everyone.
I think everyone should know how to shoot a gun and protect himself or herself. If you own a gun, you cannot just put it in a drawer and forget about it, you do have to know how to shoot it and know what you are doing. The minute those skills go away, then a gun becomes dangerous. For me it is a great hobby, I enjoy the competition, and practicing. There are tons of details, and if this was an interview for a gun magazine, we could go on forever.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.