Weighing in at 3+ kilos and hard to handle, this is the Tyson Fury of jazz books. An imposing 750 pages long, crammed with pictures, its 35 chapters are replete with comment, opinion, and facts. And yes, I do mean facts. The fruit of ten years of exhaustive research with every flam and paradiddle of Phil Seamen’s heady (if curtailed) career documented, this vast compendium was considered too risky for your every-day publisher, so first-time author Dawn has had to bankroll it himself. So quite an undertaking and at £45.00 a pop plus P&P (while stocks last) quite a weighty outlay too. Happily, this has not proved a barrier to sales thus far and I understand that at press time, some 150 copies had been sold and there are enquiries for more.
That front-cover encomium from Ronnie Scott says it all: ‘Britain’s Greatest Jazz
Drummer’ No ifs or buts. Unequivocal. For Scott, read Tubby Hayes, too. The praise for Seamen is unstinting throughout the book, whether from his modernist contemporaries, his peers, or more prosaically, from local dance band players
and aspiring amateurs. Critics, too. There's a palpable sense of awe permeating these pages. How could this essentially self- taught ex-brewery worker have attained such technical capability and at the same time, achieved a reading level that enabled him to walk into orchestral sessions as a first-call player? Or to be the obvious choice to play in the pit for West Side Story as well as being at one with Joe Harriot’s ‘free-form’ jazz?
Whole chapters are devoted to Seamen’s technique, his unprecedented adoption of the matched grip for his sticks, now common but then considered frankly wrong, and to his approach to teaching and the percussion exercises he devised for his students.
Add in his influence on younger players, many from the rock world, notably Ginger Baker and Charlie Watts (who contributed an affectionate foreword), let alone the myriad jazz drummers who sought to work out what made Seamen swing. Running though this entire vast narrative, above all, is Seamen’s generosity of spirit, despite his many calamities, paralleled by his insatiable musical curiosity, and desire to play. Humour too.
Like his subject, author Dawn is from Burton-on-Trent and brings a topographical awareness to the street scape in which Seamen grew up, having followed his father into the brewery, while always looking for the chance to bring his drums out and play. Dawn has tracked down his friends, and recorded even the tiniest of details of their boyhood encounters, caught up as they were in Phil’s personal slipstream as he made his way in and out of the club and dance bands of his neighbourhood. Born in 1926 and a drummer from age 14, Seamen’s early years took in cabaret jobs, a summer season and a first ‘name’ band engagement with
Nat Gonella in 1945, plus a period with Joe Loss before his immersion in the London jazz world. He had already starred with Jack Parnell’s big band — their paired drum routines were a sensation — but along the way succumbed to the jazz scene’s worst scourge, that of drugs, heroin in particular.
From there on, as a fellow musician later observed, ‘Phil had a talent for addiction’, not to say a compulsion, whether it was for mainlining heroin, popping pills, or drinking industrial quantities of alcohol. Sensible enough to know that his fate lay in his own hands, Seamen made a few attempts to reform, but drifted back, saying, ‘I just love the stuff. I'm a victim of my own choices.’ It led his marriage to fail and denied him the chance to go to the US with the Ronnie Scott band when he was intercepted at Southampton and banned from travel — a setback that he regretted for the rest of his time. Dawn devotes a substantial passage to an examination of Seamen’s patterns of addiction and of course cites his unreliability and self-destructive lifestyle, even as he continued to pass through the ranks of the most prominent British modernist bands of the day. Later there were periods with Alexis Korner and Georgie Fame as musical tastes changed and then came the final tragedy, when Seamen died in a senseless railway accident when ‘out if it’. Aged just 46.
If Dawn’s text is straight-ahead in tone and intention, no matter, even if tighter copy editing might have improved it, curtailing repetitions and eliminating some minor errors. The selected discography is helpful, although Dawn details much of the data in the body copy as he does the various day-by-day engagements performed by the many and varied ensembles graced by Seamen, this even including ticket prices. All grist to the Seamen mill, I guess. The bibliography is outstanding; he has trawled every source possible, printed or oral, and provides detailed references and timings for his myriad personal interviews. There’s also a separate chapter making the argument for Harriot’s pioneering role in the development of free’ jazz.
The former Melody Maker writer Chris Welch, himself a drummer, who helped Dawn with the editing process tells me that the book was set to be even longer. Oh well. For now, this is an extraordinary achievement and an exceptional tribute to the man who lived the ultimate jazz life. Yes, a ‘legendary rebel and born raver’ but undeniably ‘Britain’s Greatest Jazz Drummer’ too.