Jimmy Amadie, 75, jazz pianist

Posted: December 19, 2013

MANY OF the hundreds of fans who swarmed into the Art Museum on the night of Oct. 14, 2011, knew at least something of pianist Jimmy Amadie's amazing story.

They knew he had fought for years to overcome debilitating and painful tendinitis in his hands to become one of the greatest jazz artists ever to caress the ivories.

They knew that the crippling condition had stopped his playing altogether in the early '60s, and that he wouldn't quit. He fought hard against the paralysis and pain to produce eight albums over the years, and to give ever-rarer public performances.

But it is doubtful that very many of those attending the museum concert were aware of what Jimmy was fully conscious of: He was dying.

"It was his life's goal to perform again in public," said his wife, the former Lillian Marella. "He knew his time was running out. He gave it his all."

James V. Amadie Jr. died Dec. 10 of the lung cancer that was diagnosed seven years ago. He was 76 and lived in Bala Cynwyd.

Jimmy, who had played in his early years with some of the best jazz musicians of the day, was not only a great jazz pianist, he was a highly revered teacher, and the author of two well-regarded books on jazz technique.

After the museum concert, Jimmy was contacted by the Lincoln Center in New York to appear there, but he was too weak to accept.

"The cancer took over," his wife said. "Reality set in."

Jimmy regarded the museum concert as the highlight of his career, and he wanted it to be perfect, his wife said. He had his 9-foot grand piano moved into the museum because it had been refitted to accommodate his damaged hands.

He played with the longtime members of his trio, Tony Marino on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums.

WHYY recorded the concert and it will become Jimmy's ninth album.

" 'I'm up against the devil,' " Jimmy told Tom Di Nardo, Daily News classical-music contributor, before the concert. " 'And I'm going to beat him, no matter what it takes.' "

"He needed to prove to himself, and to the world, how great a player he was, and he succeeded royally," Di Nardo recalled yesterday. "Somehow, with help from shots, medication and acupuncture, Jimmy played two astonishing sets with his trio."

That he was able to perform at all was a testament to Jimmy's courage and perseverance. In addition to suffering from lung cancer, he had undergone abdominal surgery just months before.

But quitting was not in Jimmy Amadie's vocabulary.

He grew up in a tough neighborhood in the Tioga section of North Philadelphia, the son of James V. Amadie Sr. and Connie Amadie. A little guy, he had to learn to fight. He took up boxing at the Lighthouse Boys Club in Kensington while in fourth grade.

Boxing was, however, to be his undoing. He broke both his hands in fights at the boys club. The injuries would haunt him years later.

Jimmy also studied classical piano, and when his teacher told his parents that he showed real talent, his father removed his meager savings from the bank, raised money elsewhere and bought him a Baldwin grand piano.

His father worked in a textile mill and played the guitar.

"They were wonderful parents," Lucille said. "They gave him great support."

Jimmy played football and baseball at Northeast Catholic High School.

He was 19 when he started to perform with the great Philadelphia tenor saxophonist Charlie Ventura.

"Amadie was a budding jazz pianist with one and a half feet still in Mozartian cadenzas when Ventura, back in Philadelphia briefly around 1957, heard him on a tape and hired him for a quintet he was forming for what was to become a three-month gig at a Camden County nitery called the Kresson Manor," the Daily News' Nels Nelson wrote in 1992.

Three years later, Jimmy played with Ventura again at Club Macomba in Wildwood. Ventura put his arm around him and said, "You little S.O.B., you've finally learned how to play."

"I'll never forget that moment," Jimmy told Nelson. "That has stayed with me for life."

Jimmy toured with the Woody Herman Orchestra, Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Red Rodney, and accompanied singer Mel Torme on the road.

But in the early '60s his hands stopped working. Even hitting a simple triad brought intense pain. Over the years, he endured numerous surgeries and underwent therapy and acupuncture, but nothing helped much.

Still, he couldn't conceive of quitting. Using an egg timer, he allotted himself a minute a day at the keyboard, then gradually increased the time.

He also practiced in his head, visualizing his hands at the keyboard. At a jazz conference in 1985, he played for more than an hour with Buddy Rich and Dizzy Gillespie, setting back his progress. He couldn't lift a cup of coffee.

But he began recording, setting up equipment in his home with the help of a PBS technician.

His books, Harmonic Foundation for Jazz and Popular Music and Jazz Improv: How to Play It and Teach It, are prized by jazz artists.

He taught at Villanova University and at the Philadelphia Musical Academy, now the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts, among others.

Jimmy met his wife in 1961 when he was performing with his trio at the Bolero Supper Club in Wildwood, and she was waitressing in a restaurant next door. They were married on Jan. 23, 1965.

"We had a rich life," she said.

"I've been hearing from his students how he was ever-present with them, how his words still live within them."

Besides his wife, he is survived by a sister, Arlene Marinari, and a brother, Ralph Amadie.

Services: Memorial gathering at 1 p.m. Saturday at St. John's Episcopal Church, 404 Levering Mill Road, Bala Cynwyd.

Donations may be made to the Jimmy Amadie Academy for Jazz, c/o Office of Music Activities, Villanova University, 800 E. Lancaster Ave., Villanova, Pa. 19085.

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