For decades, Jimmy Amadie played solely in his home, heard only by his students when he'd play for them during lessons. His performing career was derailed because of severe hand problems. But later in life, he achieved some fame for his albums — and for the story of what he'd had to overcome to make it possible for him to record. Amadie died of lung cancer on Dec. 10. He was 76.
Amadie became an educator after he was forced to stop playing. He wrote two instructional textbooks: one on the harmonic foundation of jazz, another on jazz improvisation. The story of how he was finally able to record several albums, and even perform one concert, involves Fresh Air executive producer Danny Miller, who studied piano with Amadie in the '70s and '80s. They remained good friends. Miller recently joined host Terry Gross to speak about Jimmy Amadie's life and career.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: That's Jimmy Amadie at the piano. He died last week at the age of 76 of lung cancer. He achieved some fame for his albums, which he didn't record until late in life, and for the story of what he had to overcome to make it possible for him to record. Amadie's performing career got off to a promising start. He was a sideman with Woody Herman, accompanied Mel Torme, and performed with Coleman Hawkins, Red Rodney, and Charlie Ventura.
He said he is to play as much a 70 or 80 hours a week in those days. And that may be why he developed tendinitis in his hands, which became so severe it prevented him from playing more than a few minutes at a time. The considerable physical pain was probably nothing compared to the agony of not being able to do the thing he was most obsessed with: play.
The story of how he was finally able to record several albums, nine of them, and even perform one concert before he died, involves our executive producer, Danny Miller, who was one of Amadie's students. Amadie had become an educator after he was forced to stop playing. He wrote two books, one on the harmonic foundation of jazz, another on jazz improvisation. Danny studied piano with him in the '70s and '80s and they remained good friends
I asked Danny to join me in the studio and tell us more about Jimmy.
Danny, I'm sorry for your loss.
DANNY MILLER, BYLINE: Thank you, Terry. And thanks for making some time for us to remember - to remember Jimmy. I thought it would be nice to start with a conversation that I had with Jimmy back in 1982 on FRESH AIR. This was at a point in his life when he was almost entirely focused on teaching and writing the books that you refer to on jazz theory. I was studying with him at the time and every once in a while he'd play for a few minutes during our lesson, you know, just to demonstrate a point, and I couldn't imagine how he managed to play so well, how he sounded so good with just a couple of minutes - if that - at the piano each day.
When I talked to him in 1982, I asked him how he did that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
JIMMY AMADIE: I try to think about playing a lot but, you know, there's really no substitute for playing. What I try to do is remember what my function is when I'm either interviewed or when I'm giving a clinic demonstration. And my function is to be able to teach and to get my point across of what my text is about and what's happening as far as jazz harmony, theory and improvisation is concerned and not to go out and try to wail because, you know, it's not really possible for me to sit down and say well, look, I'm going to sit down and I'm going to wail.
MILLER: But how do you keep your skills together? How are you able to, for the bit that you do spend at the keyboard, what do you do away from the keyboard to keep...
AMADIE: Well, I think about playing. I think about tools for development. I have a mental practice that's really very important. It's my survival because, you know, some days I, you know, I may play 10, 15, maybe even 20 minutes. But going beyond that is really pushing it and if I don't have a good day, I may have to lay off three or four days. I mean let's face it, it's not like when you're playing four, five, six, seven hours a day.
But I don't think I need to play that many hours to accomplish what I want. Because, you know, again, I don't sit down and say well, look, let me wail and show you how I can play. That's not my purpose. My purpose is just to illustrate the content and what I want to do is just make my point of the content. And as long as I work within that, then I'm really working within my physical limitations and I can get my point across and accomplish something.
MILLER: That's my 1982 interviewed with Jimmy Amadie on FRESH AIR. When I listen back to that, I can hear him saying that he has to impose the limit on itself to not play too much. But I knew all along that he had never really given up the idea of returning to playing.
GROSS: He said that he has a mental practice. What did he mean by that?
MILLER: Well, you know, if like you hear something in your head, if you're just imagining, so you're imagining playing a trumpet solo or a piano solo and you can hear the notes mentally. Well, Jimmy not only did that but he knew what each of those notes that he was hearing were. And he would take a kind of melody idea and know exactly what each note was, play it in all 12 keys - major, minor keys - figure out what is fingering would be. But he's never at the piano and he's doing this. It is all in his head. And it is the same type of obsessive practice that you would need to approach the piano with if you're actually at the piano, except Jimmy could not take the risk of being at the piano and playing for extended periods of time because he would get hurt.
GROSS: Well, Jimmy was able to play a few minutes at least like a couple times a week. I think he had to like ice his hands and stuff after he played and go through a whole regiment and then...
MILLER: Oh, he'd be in braces. His fingers would be wrapped. He would ice his hands. For a while he was using magnets underneath ACE bandages as a pain control thing. Yeah, he would pay a price. But he would be able to play for a few minutes, a few times a week.
GROSS: And the price was worth it to him just to play. And because he was able to play for short intervals if he left enough space between intervals and gave himself time to recover, you ended up turning his living room into a home recording studio. What gave you the idea to do that and how did you accomplish it?
MILLER: Well, how it started was sometimes I'd show up for a lesson and I could see that Jimmy was really in pain. His hands were hurting him because he had played too much the evening before or earlier in the week. So I just had a what I thought was a very simple idea, which was if he recorded himself when he was playing and then was able to listen back to what he had just recorded, he would be able to be still in those moments of playing a kind of virtually experiencing the playing which would, frankly, help him resist the urge to play too much so he wouldn't get injured.
So Joyce Lieberman, engineer at WHYY, set Jimmy's living room up with microphones and a DAT recorder, a digital tape recorder, and he started recording himself. Now in the back of my mind, in the back of Jimmy's mind, maybe we thought it would lead to him actually recording in a way that could be put out on the CD. But, really, it started with just thinking Jimmy, listen to yourself play and maybe you won't overplay and maybe won't hurt yourself by playing too long at the piano.
GROSS: And it did end up being released as a CD. It was his first album.
MILLER: First album, yeah. And he ended up recording nine CDs - two of them at home, but eventually he was able to extend his playing so that he could play with the rhythm section and he recorded seven other CDs in a studio. I should say, this is with a number of hand surgeries, a good deal of physical therapy, a good deal of pain shots. I mean he would prepare himself and he would pay a price after.
But you know, he never held back. He never let any of the challenges, the pain, the surgeries hold him back and stop him.
GROSS: Can you play something for us? A track from that first album where he - of the sessions he did in his living room after you had it all mic'd up for him?
MILLER: Well, this is actually from his second album.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
MILLER: But about that same time.
GROSS: But also from the living room.
MILLER: From the living room, you know, in the mid-'90s. This is his performance of "Just Friends," probably recorded in the middle of the night. I remember him calling me up the next day and playing it for me over the phone. And I was just stunned and I hope everybody enjoys it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST FRIENDS")
GROSS: That's Jimmy Amadie at the piano recorded in 1996 in his living room. If you're just joining us, we're remembering the pianist and jazz educator Jimmy Amadie, who died last week of lung cancer at the age of 76. And in the studio with me is one of his former students, our executive producer, Danny Miller. Danny studied with him in the '70s and '80s and then they became friends for the rest of Jimmy's life.
As we mentioned, Jimmy was able to record nine albums - two at home in his living room, seven in a studio - and he was able to perform once before he died in front of an audience. You were there, Danny. Tell us a little bit about that and what it meant to Jimmy.
MILLER: Well, it was a beautiful setting. It was in the grand hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Jimmy hadn't played in public since 1967, so this was 44 years after his last public performance. It was one of the most victorious moments of his life, and Jimmy - when he was a kid, Jimmy was into boxing, he was into football, he was really a star athlete. So he was very competitive by nature and this was his chance to prove who Jimmy Amadie was in concert, no holds barred.
And it was a great evening and, you know, I miss him most when I hear him play. This evening whenever I listen back to this concert brings those memories back. So what I thought it'd be nice to hear is the song that he opened up with, which is "There Is No Greater Love." Jimmy was playing with his trio - Tony Marino on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums. And thanks, Terry, for taking a couple of minute to remember Jimmy.
GROSS: Oh, and thank you for remembering him. And Danny, was Jimmy already sick when he performed this?
MILLER: Yeah. Jimmy was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago and this is just two years. But he was in pretty good shape then.
I mean, as I said, he was a fighter and very aggressive in staying healthy and taking lots of treatment to extend his life, and so this was at a pretty good time for him health-wise.
GROSS: Well, thank you, Danny, for telling us about Jimmy Amadie. Jimmy died last week of lung cancer at the age of 76. And here he is at the piano at that art museum concert that Danny was just describing. And Danny Miller is, of course, FRESH AIR's executive producer and was Jimmy's student and good friend.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE IS NO GREATER LOVE")
GROSS: That's Jimmy Amadie performing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art two years ago. On our website you'll find a link to a video of that concert. That's freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album from a former lead singer of the '60s girl group the Crystals. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.