Book review by Wolfram Knauer – Director Jazzinstitut Darmstadt

Book review by Wolfram Knauer – Director Jazzinstitut Darmstadt

"I heard Phil Seamen for the first time when I was 16 years old, in 1957, at the Flamingo Club. All his colleagues and I in particular, as a young, aspiring drummer, saw him as our hero. He played admirably and with phenomenal technique. Probably the best we've ever had." Who raves about that? None other than Charlie Watts, Rolling Stones drummer and lifelong jazz fan. Who is he talking about? Phil Seamen, one of the hottest British drummers of the 1950s and 1960s, who died in 1972 at the age of only 46.

Seamen's name is kind of legend – you've heard about him around corners because so many older musicians raved about him, but what he really did, how he really sounded, how he lived and why he died so early... You'd have to google it. Now Peter Dawn has presented a monumental biography of the drummer, over 700 pages, intensively researched.

Seamen was born in Burton on Trent in 1926. At the age of four, he later said, he began to drum, at eight he received his first drum set. Only a few months later he gave his first concert, together with his aunt Sal for patients of a psychiatric hospital. Dawn describes life in Burton, the neighborhood where Seamen grows up. Phil is training as an electrician in the brewery where his father also worked. With the band of saxophonist Len Reynolds he played to dance, with the Metro Rhythm Boys, a kind of band within a band, he played boogie woogie and jazz. On his 19th birthday he completed his electrician apprenticeship, shortly afterwards he decided to take the path of a professional musician.

Seamen became the drummer of the popular Nat Gonella Band, with which he performed not only in England, but also in Belgium, Holland, France and Germany. In 1947 he discovered recordings of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and was captivated by bebop as a style and by the drummers who broke new ground in it, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey. With Tommy Sampson's band he played Stan Kenton arrangements, with other bands pieces from Gillespie's repertoire. Dawn follows Seamen's engagements, quotes from press reviews and talks to contemporary witnesses. In a separate chapter, he describes the London jazz scene of the 1940s and 1950s, where Seamen discovered the allure of African rhythms, hung out with musicians from Nigeria, and brought all those experiences to Kenny Graham's Afro Cubists, a band inspired by the Afro-Cuban music that was a big hit in New York at the time.

Seamen toured with the band Jack Parnells, accompanied Billie Holiday at a concert in London and appeared in the show "Jazz Wagon". Meanwhile, he was one of the most important modern British jazz musicians around Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott. It was a life full of music: touring, theater or club concerts, studio sessions, radio gigs, and Seamen was somehow always the drummer of choice.

On March 10, 1956, Seamen married his longtime girlfriend Leonie; they spent their wedding night at a concert by singer Ella Fitzgerald, who was in town at the time. In the autumn of that year, Seamen performed for the first time with his own quintet, which for a while also included the American bassist Major Holley. In early 1957, Ronnie Scott's sextet was booked for a US tour, but Seamen did not even make it to the Queen Elizabeth. A customs officer just glanced at him, writes Dawn, then took him aside, searched him and found ... Heroin. Seamen ended up in the detention prison, his wife made it difficult to bring his instrument back home by train and taxi. In the end, Seamen got away with a fine of 80 pounds, but from now on his story in Dawn's book is also one of the successful drummer on the one hand, of the dependent junkie on the other. His wife at the time recalls that he always secretly fired the shot, tried a methadone program once or twice, and otherwise drank a lot: "He liked everything that gave him a buzz in any way." In the end, this was too much for marriage; It broke apart.

Seamen played with Don Rendell and Dizzy Reece, and when Leonard Bernstein wanted to perform his "West Side Story" in London, he chose Phil as the only suitable drummer who could read music and swing at the same time. It is important to know about a peculiarity of the relationship between American and British musicians in those years: the British musicians' unions had ensured that American musicians were only allowed to perform in Great Britain in exceptional cases. It continues with well-known gigs: Jazz Couriers, Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott's first club, recordings for records, radio and television.

Setbacks: Tubby Hayes didn't like the fact that Seamen played too much into the foreground. But the expulsion was not a problem; Seamen has played with ensembles of all stylistic orientations, with the Joe Harriott Quintet as well as with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, and he accompanied many accompanied American stars at their gigs in the United Kingdom.

From 1969 comes an extensive interview with Seamen by the American journalist Harry Frost, in which the effects of drugs on his music are also discussed, in which he speaks openly about the various substances he consumed. Dawn complements the interview with statements from Seamen's circle of friends about his addiction and how he was always like a different person when he was released from an addiction clinic.

Dawn devotes a detailed chapter to Seamen's drumming, allowing Seamen himself and colleagues to have their say. After Alexis Korner's band, Seamen played in modern as well as trad bands, as they were fashionable in England at the time; he hung out with Ginger Baker, and he became a drummer in Georgie Fame's Blue Flames band. Other names: Dick Morrissey, the Harry South Big Band, drums behind Roland Kirk, Zoot Sims, Freddie Hubbard. Festivals and small pubs, Ginger Baker's band Air Force, plans for the future. And then came that fateful day, Friday, October 13, 1972. Seamen took the train from Wimbledon to Waterloo Station. There, however, he got off on the wrong side of the train, which was still possible at that time, and fell onto the live third rail. He was hospitalized, went home at his own risk, took sleeping pills to get down, and died the same night.

Peter Dawn's book is a detailed appreciation of the life and work of Phil Seamen, "warts and all", as they say in English, ups and downs. Dawn really delved into the topic, talked to contemporary witnesses, friends, relatives, dug out and transcribed old interviews, lets colleagues have their say, describes Seamen's musical approach to his instrument, but also does not leave out the dark sides, the alcohol, the drugs, which were perhaps not directly, but certainly indirectly responsible for his death.

Dawn tells an important chapter of British jazz history, en detail, perhaps a little too much detail for the reader less familiar with this story. Especially in view of the brokenness of this musical personality, however, Dawn's careful documentation is more than justified. He brings the drummer back to life almost fifty years after his death. And Dawn doesn't leave the words dry on the paper. On the website he has collected the music (as paid downloads) and film excerpts (as links) of the drummer. His book undoubtedly fills a gap and is worth reading precisely because of the clear presentation of the different sides of Phil Seamen.

Wolfram Knauer (February 2023)

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