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Grasping Greatness
Bala Cynwyd’s Jimmy Amadie has played through pain with some of the best in jazz.

Jazz pianist Jimmy Amadie savors every note—and counts his blessings.

Jimmy Amadie is still in pain. It’s been weeks since his fingers last touched the keyboard of his Yamaha grand piano—the one he used to finish recording what will be his sixth jazz CD—and he can’t even shake hands. Truth be told, he can barely pick up a pen to sign his name.

It usually takes Amadie, 69, about three to six months to recover from a recording session. Sometimes he checks into Bryn Mawr Hospital for still more surgery on his hands. He puts in hours of physical therapy so that, sooner or later, he can button his shirt, hold a fork, open a door, tie his shoes, turn the key in his car’s ignition and grip the steering wheel.

“I don’t want people to see me hurting,” says Amadie from the Bala Cynwyd home he’s shared for 35 years with his wife, Lucille, a landscape designer. “If they see pain, I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

It will be a few months before the release of Amadie’s CD, Three Legends of Jazz. Recorded at Red Rock Studios in the Pocono mountain town of Saylorsburg, the album of jazz standards and originals gets its name from its guest stars—trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonists Lee Konitz and Lew Tabakin.

“That I would be able to record with these people is nothing short of a miracle,” Amadie says. “These guys are more than legends. They are masters. The miracle is that they know me. They respect me. They’re willing to come and do the gig. With them—with Phil Woods, who has also recorded with me, and with Phil’s rhythm section, Steve Gilmore and Bill Goodwin—there’s only one rule: all-out. We sit down, do the tunes in one take and don’t let anything stop us.”

There’s more to Amadie’s statement than bravado. The reason that Amadie and his musicians play each tune only once is that he can only play the piano for so many minutes before the pain becomes so excruciating he can’t continue. Five years ago, the most Amadie could play was a few minutes, followed by several weeks of downtime.

“My first album took me 13 years at a minute or two at a time,” he said. “I called my second album Savoring Every Note because that’s what I had to do. When all you’re good for in a day is a minute of playing time, every second counts.”

Last year, when recording Let’s Groove, his tribute to his musical mentor, Mel Tormé, Amadie took a nurse with him into the studio for the second, and what he hoped would be the last, session. He requested that the nurse not wear a uniform. “I introduced her as a family friend,” Amadie says. With the nurse standing by, Amadie finished the session, playing a full half hour of music. “I was useless for three months after, but I did a half an album. I was in top form; I was better than I’d ever been,” he says. “I decided that, from now on, I was going to shoot for a half hour at every session. I’m not a kid trying to make a name for himself. I have a name. I’m not trying to make up for lost time. What I’m doing is going into a boxing ring, and every note you hear is me fighting for my life.”

Hard Miles
The history of jazz is filled with tragic turns and hard-luck tales, but no story is as frustrating or as inspirational as that of Jimmy Amadie. The scrappy native of Philadelphia’s Tioga section was on his way to becoming one of the best bebop pianists of his generation when, one afternoon in 1960 before dressing for a gig at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City, his hands began to hurt so much he couldn’t tie his shoes. He finished the gig, but the next day he couldn’t play a note.

“I’m 20 years old, got a gig at the Copa and I’m making more money than I know what to do with, and then my hands go,” Amadie recalls. He was diagnosed as having acute tendonitis, an inflammation of the tendons that probably was the result of injuries to his hands and arms from his days as a boxer and a baseball and football player.

“I always got sore a little playing the piano, but I never paid attention to it,” Amadie says. “I was young. I was used to playing 10 and 15 hours at a stretch. I didn’t let anything stop me from playing. I figured it would go away eventually.”

When the pain didn’t go away, Amadie got cortisone injections. He played with Woody Herman, Mel Tormé, Coleman Hawkins and Red Rodney. In 1967, he was playing at a South Jersey club when his index fingers refused to move. Minutes later, the pain was so intense Amadie had to stop playing, he thought, for good.

“Where do you go when you lose your livelihood? To be around musicians and not play was absolutely unbearable,” he says. “You can’t tell people that, at one time, you played with some of the best players in the world and now you can’t even play for two minutes. I said to God, ‘I don’t rob. I don’t steal. I don’t cheat. All I’ve ever done was practice, practice, practice—and you took my hands.’”

In 1970, Amadie was hospitalized for the first of six operations he would have on his hands and forearms to remove scar tissue impeding the nerves in his forearm. But even after the surgeries, “doing basic things was unbearable,” Amadie says. “There was a different kind of pain—and there was no way I could play.”

So he wrote background music for NFL Films. He taught at the Philadelphia Music Academy, Berklee College of Music and Villanova University. Eventually he began writing, slowly, on a special keyboard, completing two textbooks on jazz harmony and improvisation.

When teaching gigs were sparse, or when the pain was so great Amadie couldn’t get out of bed, he and his wife lived on the salary Lucille made as a secretary for the Philadelphia Board of Education. Every day, instead of playing the Baldwin grand piano his father bought him, Amadie practiced mentally. “To this day, I wake up every morning, I meditate for 20 minutes and then I go back to bed and, for two and a half hours, practice in my head,” says Amadie.

It was in 1977 that he decided he’d try to play one minute every day. There were days when he couldn’t lift a finger, and others when he stretched the session to a minute and a half. After five years of grueling effort, he had one session that lasted an incredible 15 minutes.

Then, on the suggestion of a radio producer for WHYY’s Fresh Air, he began to record his sessions at the piano. A perfectionist, Amadie spent as much as 16 weeks recording each tune. The late Steve Allen, an Amadie fan, contributed the lyrics to a tune Amadie wrote for his father, Jimmy Amadie Sr. This tune became the title of Amadie’s first solo album of standards and originals, 1995’s Always With Me. The collection was greeted warmly in the local jazz community, gaining airtime on WHYY and Temple University’s WRTI.

It took Amadie two years, recording one tune every six weeks, to complete his second solo album, Savoring Every Note, which he dedicated to his wife. Saxophonist Nick Brignola suggested that he make a trio record and referred him to bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin, who live in the Poconos near saxophonist Phil Woods.

During a normal trio recording session, the drums are played first, followed by the bass and piano. Because Amadie could only play for a few minutes at a time, he recorded In a Trio Setting: A Salute to Sinatra by doing the piano tracks first.

It took Amadie five years to record 10 tracks just the way he wanted them. Gilmore and Goodwin recorded their accompaniment in a single day.

While doing his third CD, Live at Red Rock: A Tribute to Tony Bennett, Amadie did as many of the tunes as he could live, in a single take, with Gilmore and Goodwin playing with him. Phil Woods played on a few of the tracks and joined Amadie on the follow-up Mel Tormé tribute album, Let’s Groove.

With that record, Amadie’s life came full circle. Though he was able to play for only a fraction of the time he could in his youth, he was not only playing with musicians he admired, he was achieving that unique jazz dynamic in which structure and improvisation, rhythm and harmony combine to create a musical moment that far exceeds the sum of its parts.

Around that time, Chicago Tribune music critic Howard Reich praised Amadie, writing, “The beauty of his tone, the clarity of his thought and the contrapuntal intricacy of some of his work are deeply appealing. Moreover, the restrictions on Amadie have enabled him to express ideas with remarkable brevity and eloquence. There isn’t a wasted note here.”

“I was finally hearing the music I had been playing in my head,” says Amadie. “And it sounded great.”

Forging Ahead
Amadie has planned three more tribute albums—to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Bud Powell (who he considers the greatest jazz pianist of all time). His tribute discs go against music industry custom in that they are not re-recordings of a famous musician’s greatest hits. Amadie might include a few standards, but the majority of tunes are originals that express intimately, and musically, how important these musicians have been to him.

“Music, for me, is happening constantly,” Amadie says. “What I play in my head doesn’t stop. It’s always there in the background—I bring it into the foreground when I compose.”

Amadie’s pianos have special actions to accommodate the lightest touch, and he uses a computer to print out the arrangements. And like many jazz artists who record for small independent labels, he maintains complete control of everything that happens on his CDs, which are sold through Amazon.com and other Internet vendors. As always, Amadie has absolutely no interest in compromising his music or making his swinging, straight-ahead trio and combo performances more suitable for radio formats.

“I don’t have the time to be someone else’s idea of success,” says Amadie. “After all those years, I couldn’t even be my idea of a success. Now I have the opportunity to make the best music I can. The minute you give up, you’re gone. I’ll never quit. I’m going to play music until I die.”

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