Jazzman with a punch

Jimmy Amadie talks about the pain in his hands - the hands that served him in boxing rings and at the piano. Those passions took a toll, but he has been recording in recent years and will play live Friday for the first time in decades. Poor eyesight forces him to use cue cards, below.
Jimmy Amadie talks about the pain in his hands - the hands that served him in boxing rings and at the piano. Those passions took a toll, but he has been recording in recent years and will play live Friday for the first time in decades. Poor eyesight forces him to use cue cards, below. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)

Jimmy Amadie will hit the ivories at the Art Museum in his first public performance in 44 years. The ex-boxer has a mission.

Posted: October 13, 2011

When 74-year-old pianist Jimmy Amadie tore his rotator cuff a few years ago while shadowboxing at the gym, his orthopedic surgeon gave him a piece of advice.

"Do me a favor, Jimmy," the doctor asked the jazzman, who has had eight surgeries on his hands since severe tendinitis interrupted his career as a rising soloist and sideman in the 1960s. "Don't fight anymore."

Not a chance.

Amadie will perform in public on Friday for the first time in 44 years, playing two hour-long sets at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Since he first learned to box at Lighthouse Boys Club in Kensington in fourth grade, Jimmy Amadie - pronounced AMA-day - has always been a fighter.

Growing up in the Tioga section of North Philadelphia, Amadie started playing piano as a teenager. He was inspired by his guitar- and soccer-playing father, whom he describes as "the toughest son-of-a-bitch you ever met," and who took him to see Art Tatum at the Academy of Music when he was 16.

"I never forgot that," Amadie recalls, sitting in an easy chair in his living room in Bala Cynwyd, where he lives with his wife, Lucille, and silky terrier, Rex. Nearby is the grand piano that he'll play in the museum's Great Stair Hall on Friday. "I thought there must be like four or five other piano players behind a screen. Just unbelievable."

But competitive sports were his first passion. He was an all-conference quarterback and second baseman at Northeast Catholic High School, and he learned life lessons in the boxing ring.

"Here's the best thing about playing sports," says Amadie, who last summer released his eighth album, Something Special, with drummer Bill Goodwin and bass player Tony Marino, who will back him on Friday.

"It's not when you won; it's when you lost. I took a beating from a kid once at Lighthouse. He shellacked me. But I learned how to fight. You can't always win, just like you don't always win in life. But you can learn from losing. You can learn from all the things you can't do."

For most of his adult life, Amadie has been all but prevented from doing the thing he loves the most. In the 1960s, he accompanied Mel Tormé on the road, and played with Coleman Hawkins, Red Rodney, and Charlie Ventura, and held down house trio duties at the Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken, where Count Basie and others regularly played, and which was the site of his last public performance.

But playing piano 70 to 80 hours a week took its toll on the confidently swinging soloist, who had broken both of his hands boxing before turning to music full time. He "blew out" his hands, he says. When the pain became too much, he had his first two operations in the early 1970s, but they offered little relief.

Able to play for only a few minutes at a time, followed by long periods of rest, he remade himself as an educator. He wrote two highly regarded text books, Harmonic Foundation for Jazz and Popular Music and Jazz Improv: How To Play It and Teach It. He took on students such as pianist John di Martino and guitar player Kurt Rosenwinkel, and taught at Villanova University and the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

"Friends of my wife used to say, 'I heard you used to play,' " the fiercely proud musician says. "But I had never made an album, I couldn't prove anything. If I had died before I was 60, nobody would have known I could play."

Determined to make his mark, and tired of practicing only in his head, in 1993 he started recording one song every 16 weeks at home in Bala Cynwyd. Three years later, he released his solo debut album, Always With Me.

And thanks to a half-dozen more operations to repair nerve damage and remove scar tissue - plus intensive therapy and enormous patience - Amadie has gone on to record seven more albums over the years. It was after the recording of one of those, 2007's The Philadelphia Story - which The Inquirer called "a sumptuous offering" - that he was diagnosed with cancer.

"Angry? Was I angry? I almost went crazy," Amadie says. "What I said to God that night: I'm sure he never forgot it. Here I'm trying to get my hands fixed, and I finally get to the point here I can play the way I want to play, and I wind up with lung cancer. I never smoked, but I hung around the gym all the time, where there were cigars and cigarettes and all that."

As he tells it, a nurse said to him, "Mr. Amadie, I don't think this is going to happen, but you know it's quite possible you could die from lung cancer." With that threat hanging over his head, Amadie decided he wanted to do more than record. He wanted to play live again.

First he recorded the unfailingly thoughtful Something Special, released on his own TP label, which mixes "Happy Man's Bossa Nova" and other Amadie compositions with standards such as "Sweet Lorraine" and "My Funny Valentine," often played with stunning precision and speed, considering Amadie's physical limitations. And then he asked his publicist, Don Lucoff, to get him a gig.

Amadie, who's being treated with chemotherapy that caused him to temporarily lose sight in one eye earlier this year, says the album is called Something Special "because when I played, I used all my bad fingers. I decided to not hold anything back. I fought the champ that day."

The show at the Art Museum was originally planned for June, but when Amadie had further difficulties with his hands, it was rescheduled.

"That thing the nurse said to me, I kept it in the back of my head," he says, looking ahead to Friday's performance. "I'm really sore. I'm hurt. But what do you want me to do? I can't stop playing. I can't even fathom not trying to play. This is the best time of my life. I'm playing better than ever. So if the Devil wants to see me that night, I'll see him. That's all I can do. That's the best I can do."

Jimmy Amadie talks about being a fighter, and performs "Here's That Rainy Day" at his home: www.philly.com/amadie

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, deluca@phillynews.com, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.


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