In Honor of Jimmy Amadie
As my usual Sunday afternoon routine went, I sat down at Jimmy Bruno's kitchen table and began to take my guitar our of its case. But this Sunday was very different from the previous lessons with my mentor. I had been Bruno's student for four years, and, for the first time, he recommended that I consider taking a few lessons with another teacher based in the Philadelphia area.
Bruno sat down at the table and presented a book authored by the teacher. I looked at the cover: "Jazz Improv: How to Play It and Teach It" by Jimmy Amadie. Intrigued, I started leafing through the pages of the book.
"I just got this book; it looks great. Jimmy Amadie was a great pianist who had to stop many years ago because both of his hands gave out," Bruno informed me.
I thought, "Why would I study with a pianist? I am a guitarist!"
He continued, "You might want to take a lesson and see how it goes. You can still take lessons from me, but I think it will do you good to get another perspective on playing. There are other approaches than the one I teach. I looked through Jimmy Amadie's book and think he is really onto something."
Despite Bruno's appeals, I still felt a strong resistance to his idea. I had no desire to study with anyone else and could not see how a pianist could help me improve my guitar playing.
Coincidentally, my high school music teacher asked if I had ever heard of Jimmy Amadie a few days later. I told him I had only heard of him. Mr. Stairs then made the same suggestion Bruno had earlier.
Finding it uncanny that the two teachers whom I respected most mentioned Jimmy Amadie within a few days of each other, I decided to contact him. I asked Mr. Stairs for Amadie's phone number; he jotted it down on a piece of paper.
The sun had set; dinner was over. I retrieved the piece of paper Mr. Stairs had given me. I picked up the phone and dialed the number. A man's voice that I assumed to be Jimmy's answered. "Hello Mr. Amadie, I got your number from Michael Stairs. He and Jimmy Bruno recommended that I call you to see if you'd be willing to give me a lesson."
Amadie asked about my background and told me he would set up an evaluation for me to see where I was as a player. The arrogant voice inside of my head replied, "An evaluation? I told him I have studied with Jimmy Bruno for four years. Why would he need to evaluate me?"
With some reluctance, I agreed to Amadie's terms. The evaluation date was set, and when I arrived I set out to impress him so much with my guitar playing that he would feel foolish for not wanting to accept me as a student from the beginning.
Jimmy greeted me at the door leading to his music studio. "Go in and warm up. I'll be right there." Upon entering his teaching studio, a grey foldout chair awaited me next to a small Ampeg amplifier from the 1960s. I plugged in my guitar and turned on the amp. My hubris ever present, I began to play my scales and arpeggios as fast as I could. I was confident that he would be bowled over by what he heard." I did this for the next fifteen minutes, stopping only when I began wondering why he had not yet returned.
A couple of minutes later, Amadie entered the room. "Okay," he said as he sat down in a green rolling chair, "let me hear you play a tune-any tune." Without a single remark about my warm up, he reached over and selected a cassette tape next to his tape recorder.
"You are going to record me?" I asked.
"Yes, that way I can refer back to your playing," he responded. "Jimmy Bruno had never recorded me during our lessons," I thought to myself with some annoyance that stemmed from not receiving the reaction I had though I would receive.
An uneasy feeling came me as I knew that I was about to be recorded. "What tune are you going to play?" Amadie asked. I thought for a moment. "I'll Remember April," I declared. "Okay, you got it."
I started into the chord-melody I knew so well. Fewer than ten measures into the song: "Stop, try it again," he said. Slightly annoyed, I started again only to find myself interrupted even sooner the second time.
"Just play the melody-forget about your arrangement," he said. I began trying to play the melody but quickly faltered after my first mistake.
His facial expression bore no resemblance to the one I had imagined before the lesson. He had a look of concern, even bewilderment at times. His final request: "Solo for me." I felt this was my big opportunity to really dazzle him. I played as fast and fiercely as I could before he stopped me at the bridge of the song.
He leaned back in his chair, adjusted his glasses, picked up a pencil, and pressed the eraser under his chin. He looked up and away for a moment and then back at me. I knew he was about to say something that was going to be anything but complimentary.
"I don't know how to tell you this, Prez, but your playing is completely in left field. In fact, I don't think I have heard someone play worse than you. For one, your time is all over the place; you don't know the basic melody to the tune; you only have your arrangement."
He paused again and continued, "Look Prez, there are two kinds of players: the players who think that music serves technique, and the players who have the technique serve the music. Clearly, you are in the first category. You have all these chops, but the music is secondary. No one cares about your technique if you can't tell a story-if you cannot communicate musically. Plus, when your time is bad, no one will want to play with you. The biggest drag in the world is to play with a cat who has bad time. Listen to the recording--the tape doesn't lie."
As we listened back, I could not help but wonder why I had adopted such a stupid attitude. I felt I deserved the pointed criticisms. He stopped the tape and asked rhetorically, "Am I saying something?"
Disheartened and annoyed with myself, I nodded my head. He got up and patted me on the back, "Don't worry, Prez, you have a lot of work ahead, but I will help you." His assurances made me feel only slightly better. Shortly after leaving his house, I was filled with an intense desire to do whatever I had to until my musical shortcomings were rectified.
For the next ten years, Jimmy Amadie became much more than a teacher; he was another mentor, another father, an inspiration, and a great friend.
His genius as an educator was not only in developing concepts for improvisation and harmony; understanding that music, as with life, does not exist in a vacuum. He also espoused practicing under "game conditions": creating a context as close to the one you would face outside of the practice room during a performance.
I am forever indebted to Jimmy for inculcating so many life and musical lessons during my time with him. As much as I miss him, his indomitable spirit and passion remain and continue onward through me, and those whose lives he touched. Thank you and much love, Prez.