LIFE'S WORK: Photographs of family, friends and former students adorn the top of the piano in Amadie's Bala Cynwyd home.
"Who the fuck is Jimmy Amadie?"
Doubtless more than a few people will be asking that question when they see Amadie's name on the schedule for this Friday night's Art After 5 performance at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is, after all, a 74-year-old pianist with only a handful of CDs to his name. He didn't make his recording debut until 1996, at the age of 60. His résumé, which does include notable names like Mel Tormé and Woody Herman, stops abruptly at 1967. Which was also the last time he played in front of an audience. Until this weekend.
But on this occasion, it's Jimmy Amadie himself who poses the question. I've asked him, given the severe tendonitis in both hands that sidelined his career more than four decades ago and the health problems that have plagued him in recent years, why he feels the need to return to the stage at all.
"Let's be honest," he answers, sitting in a recliner in his Bala Cynwyd home, right next to the grand piano he can rarely touch. "Who the fuck is Jimmy Amadie? Where's he been? He's a musician like everybody else — why doesn't he play? Is he lazy? Is he a bum? Well, if it takes your hands to play and you have no hands, you can't play."
I can posit one answer to his rhetorical question. Jimmy Amadie is a fighter. Once upon a time, as a young man growing up in the city's Tioga section, literally so: He was a boxer, as well as a baseball and football player. To this day, he repeatedly wishes that his lung cancer, diagnosed four years ago, would take human form and fight him like a man. "I'll kill the motherfucker" is a virtual mantra for Amadie, one that it would be foolish to doubt.
I first met Jimmy Amadie in November 2007 when I interviewed him for DownBeat magazine. I had heard about his remarkable story, but things changed when I had the opportunity to hear Amadie himself tell it. This gregarious, gentle-seeming septuagenarian still has the temper and spirit of a North Philly scrapper. He'll embrace you like his oldest and dearest friend when you walk in the door, and just as soon throw a chokehold around your neck to demonstrate that while his hands may be sore, he's anything but weak.
I've had a few opportunities to write about Amadie since then, including penning the liner notes to his 2010 CD Kindred Spirits, which featured jazz greats Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano and Lew Tabackin guesting with Amadie's usual recording trio of drummer Bill Goodwin and either Steve Gilmore and Tony Merino on bass. But after our first meeting, I knew I wanted to capture this unique character on screen and began working sporadically on a documentary, allowing me the opportunity to watch those recording sessions as a fly on the wall.
The main lesson I learned from those experiences is to never doubt Amadie's indomitable will. I've seen him in pain and in poor health (not that he'd ever admit to that), but wholly able to ignore his own suffering and make wonderful music. I have no doubt the same will be true of Friday's performance. "I'm gonna see the devil that night," Amadie says. "But I assure you that I'm not giving up anything. I'm going to try to make as much music as possible."
Amadie tells his story this way: Fifty years ago, God introduced him to Benny Golson, Phil Woods, Lee Konitz, Randy Brecker — all of the greats he's since recorded with. "I got a big smile on my face," he continues. "And God says, 'What are you smiling at, Amadie?' I said, 'Well, I'm going to be able to play with all these great players.' And He says, 'No. All people aren't created equal. I made them special. I didn't make you one of those.' I said, 'What do you mean, God?' He said, 'They can communicate and play with each other through their whole lives. But you can't contact them for 50 years.' I said, 'Why 50 years?' And God said, 'Because it's going to take you that long to catch up.'"
One night in 1967, Amadie sat at the piano bench for the Billy Duke Big Band at Henry's in Cherry Hill, N.J. "There were some great players in that band," he recalls. "We had guys in our band from the Woody Herman band, Count Basie's band, guys who played with Benny Goodman. It was fabulous. And that was the last time I played. I played a B flat minor 7 chord and both index fingers collapsed at the same time. That was it."
Amadie attributes his condition to his excessive practice routine, which often saw him glued to the piano for upward of 10 hours at a time. When injuries put an end to his youthful athletic endeavors (caused, again, by his penchant for overdoing things), he took to the piano with the same rigor and zeal.
"I'm just an average talent," he shrugs. "No question about it. None. But I did something about it. I practiced. I blew my chops because nobody can practice 10, 12, 15 hours. But if I would have done less, I never would have learned. If that was the price of learning, it was worth it. I'd rather fight the champ and lose."
At first it seemed the daunting schedule was paying off. Amadie found himself playing alongside bebop trumpet legend Red Rodney and saxophonist/bandleader Charlie Ventura, accompanying Mel Tormé and joining the ranks of Woody Herman's famous Herd. But that night at Henry's was the musical equivalent of a head-on collision with a brick wall.
Over the next 30 years, Amadie underwent several surgeries as well as regular cortisone injections in both hands. He also continued practicing, for hours per day — but only in his head, not at the keyboard. "How do you learn when you can't practice? I play in my head. When you're young and you need an answer, you go to somebody else. When I need to learn something, I go to myself."
He also turned to teaching, writing two books on his methods ( Jazz Improv: How To Play It and Teach It! and Harmonic Foundation for Jazz & Popular Music ) that are still in use today. Students who have passed through his house include guitar great Kurt Rosenwinkel, pianist/producer John di Martino and Danny Miller, executive producer for NPR's Fresh Air.
It was Miller who encouraged Amadie to begin recording in the mid-'90s, when he had reached a point where he could play for up to five minutes at a time. "They operated on my hands seven or eight times, and they helped me to heal," Amadie says. "So I'm 60 years old and I realize that if I died today, nobody would know who I am. That's when I started to record."
The 13 songs on Amadie's solo debut CD, Always With Me, were recorded at 16-week intervals, giving his hands the months in between each track to heal. After a second solo release, he felt the urge to collaborate and set his mind to recording a trio album. But he did it the hard way, performing his parts the same way as he had his solo sessions, then handing the tapes to his rhythm section to match.
"It sounded like a challenge," drummer Bill Goodwin told me in 2007. "Those become fewer and more far between as you get older. It was hard to do, but Jimmy's such a courageous guy. Most normal people would give up, but he has this passion to play. He's a real bebop piano player in the tradition of Bud Powell and Red Garland, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones. There are very few of those left anymore."
Amadie discovered Goodwin and bassist Steve Gilmore (and, later, Tony Merino) as sax legend Phil Woods' rhythm section and realized that if they worked for Woods, they'd likely be able to handle any challenge. Woods appeared on Amadie's fourth and fifth albums, which would be the last he recorded in this time-consuming, unconventional fashion. For The Philadelphia Story: The Gospel As We Know It, which featured saxophonists Benny Golson and Lew Tabackin and trumpeter Randy Brecker, Amadie took his ensemble into the studio, the first time he'd been able to interact with other musicians in nearly 40 years.
"After I did that album," Amadie told me, "I figured I can't play better than that. I said to God, 'I can die in peace.' Then I had a minor surgery, they saw something on a film that wasn't right, and to make a long story short I found out I had lung cancer. I can't tell you how devastated I was, because after all these years to feel so good about playing, I just couldn't believe that I could wind up with something else. I went crazy. I had to take it back."
Through his ongoing struggle with the disease, Amadie recorded Kindred Spirits with Lovano, Konitz and Tabackin, and finally threw caution to the wind and recorded the trio album Something Special, not even allowing his hands the respite of a horn solo.
During that earlier session, Lovano said that Amadie's condition had no impact on the musicianship involved. "He's playing his ideas and he's playing with his personal feeling. If you're having a physical problem and you fight it, then there's going to be moments of unsureness. But Jimmy plays with a beautiful flow. He's not fighting anything. His ideas are coming out and he's playing with a lot of feeling."
"I write for good hands," Amadie told me during our first meeting, "I don't write for problems."
Following the strain of recording the trio album with a live concert may not be the best idea from a strictly physical standpoint, but Amadie has never been one to allow harsh realities to stand in his way. He does, however, concede that how and what he plays will be determined by his condition on the day. "I'm not gonna show the piano how tough I am," he says. "He's too big. He's gonna kick the shit out of me. But I know that when I go to the piano and play one note, you're not going to hear that one note unless I'm playing."
Amadie's wife, Lucille, has kept their house filled with artwork, and he pauses a moment to consider some of the paintings that surround him. "Five guys might have a brushstroke," he continues, "but as soon as Rembrandt makes a brushstroke it's different. It's the same way when I hear Hank Jones play one note. It's his signature, his touch. I want to feel that when I sit down at the piano, I know what elegance is. I can hear the touch, I can hear the sound, I can hear the harmony, I can hear the theoretical concept, I can hear the rhythmic concept, I can hear all these elements, yet when I'm sitting down I'm just trying to make music."
Looking forward to the long-awaited concert, Amadie says, "All I want to be is what I am. I want to be able to play and express myself the best I can musically. You're not responsible for how you're born, where you came from, you can't pick the health condition with which you live, you can't pick when you want to die. You've got to try to take where you are and improve and move on from that."
Amadie is allowing himself to look slightly over the horizon, to hope that this performance will not be a once-in-a-lifetime event for him or for his audience. But he's prepared to play as if it is.
"This is the best time of my life," he says. "It took a long time to get here. All I've ever done is think about playing, and now I get a chance to come full circle. I don't want to survive anymore. I want to fucking win."
Jimmy Amadie plays Fri., Oct. 14, 5:45 and 7:15 p.m., free with museum admission of $16, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Ben Franklin Parkway, 215-763-8100, philamuseum.org.
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