Book review by Paul Kaufman -Past Chairman of Trustees National Jazz Archive

Book review by Paul Kaufman -Past Chairman of Trustees National Jazz Archive

This is a wonderful addition to NJA’s extensive collections, and a standout book on many levels, if only for its sheer size and detail: 751 pages, copious illustrations, a 23-page index, and weighing in at 4 lb. It was many years in the writing and serves as a monumental tribute to the man Ronnie Scott described as ‘Britain’s greatest drummer.’ It was published at the end of last year, half a century after Seamen’s tragic death in 1972 aged just 46.

Author Peter Dawn has done a remarkable job meticulously piecing together a rich tapestry of anecdotes, historic context, musical analysis, and details of performances, venues, artists and personal milestones and minutiae. They meticulously track Seamen’s life, warts and all, from cradle to grave. 

There are acknowledgments to around 300 named individuals who helped in this mammoth work. The list reads like a ‘who’s who’ of this formative period in British jazz. Poignantly, several have died during the book’s epic creation, including Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker and John Hiseman. (It is also gratifying to note that NJA, and our research archivist David Nathan, are singled out for special thanks.)

The result is much more than just a biography of one man. Augmented with an abundance of first-hand quotes, it paints a vivid picture of the individuals and the jazz scene as it developed post-World War II and is an important social history in its own right, irrespective of the jazz content. 

Just some of the book’s fascinating facets are reflected in the story of Seamen’s ill-fated attempt to play in the US with the Ronnie Scott Sextet in 1957 – a historic first for a modern British jazz combo. He didn’t even get to board the ship. Seamen was searched as he got off the train at Southampton and arrested for heroin found in his pocket. 

This was front page news at the time. But the back stories give it a new dimension. One is how Seamen’s girlfriend courageously rescued his drum kit from police storage, rightly believing that it had been used to conceal further stashes of heroin. Another is how other bandmembers also had drugs with them for the trip. Seamen maintained he was targeted by the police because the father of rival drummer Allan Ganley had grassed on him. Ganley took his place on the tour, and Seamen, despite his towering ability, never did get to play in the States. Drug use and its toll is a running theme, including its contribution to Seamen’s death a week after getting out of the wrong side of a train at Waterloo and falling on the electric line. 

An aspect of the book which may grate with some is the unfiltered inclusion of sexist and racist attitudes and behaviour particularly prevalent and flagrant in that era. For this reviewer it is important to document unpalatable truths, and let the reader pass judgment. Just one example is the cringe-making first-hand account of actress and singer Barbara Windsor of a two-week tour with Ronnie Scott. She describes him ripping off the sewn-in flowers ornamenting the top of her scoop neck dress, telling her ‘the dress is nice but those flowers cover up the box-office’. It sets the scene for further lurid experiences with the musicians. 

One small quibble is the index. Comprehensive though it is, it would have been helpful to break down some extensive entries. In fairness, a preface to the index apologises for any short-comings due to space restrictions. 

The book includes numerous tributes to Seamen’s powerful personality, playing and influence. It is unfortunate that there is so little video footage available to help bring this to life, but there are some classic clips.  

You can read further reviews and purchase the book here. The book is also now available to read at our Archive in Loughton.

Paul Kaufman

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