Book review by Jon Newey – Jazzwise Editor in Chief – February 2023

Book review by Jon Newey – Jazzwise Editor in Chief – February 2023

Blessed with a prodigious natural talent from a very young age; held in the highest esteem by drum giants Philly Joe Jones, Kenny Clarke, Buddy Rich and Ginger Baker; and the first-call drummer for the UK's top big bands and modern jazz ensembles from the late 1940s to the late 60s, Phil Seamen was dubbed ‘the greatest jazz drummer in Europe’ before chronic drug use led to his early demise 50 years ago.

Recent decades have seen fellow Brit-jazz trailblazers Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes lauded worldwide. Now's the time to give the drummer some.

Running to more than 750 pages and illustrated with 300 rare photos, press cuttings and memorabilia (and with a Foreword from the late Charlie Watts), author Peter Dawn - who hails from Seamen's hometown of Burton on Trent - has spent more than 10 years researching the drummer's extraordinary life and the jazz world around him to a forensic level rarely seen before in a jazz biography, painstakingly separating the reality from the myths and legends that followed in the larger-than-life drummer's wake.

From Seamen's birth in 1926 and his first encounter with the drums age four; to playing with a local dance orchestra at 14 and joining Nat Gonella's band in 1945, Dawn interweaves early years commentary from his childhood and teenage friends and co-workers from Seamen's brewery apprenticeship, with frank interviews the drummer gave UK and American writers, most of which are now held in the National Sound Archives.

His big break came first with joining the Joe Loss Orchestra in 1950, then Jack Parnell's band, moving to London and getting weekly praise in Melody Maker, where his then unique matched grip sticking caused controversy. He became a Club Eleven regular, playing with Ronnie Scott, Pete King, John Dankworth and Tubby Hayes, and found a willing mistress in Sohos illicit charms - booze, marijuana and heroin, all-night dives, and an affair with Scott's cousin Josie.

The self-taught Seamen advanced his playing and reading skills to an astonishing level, combining flawless timing, exquisite swing and love of African rhythms, all of which are analysed here in considerable depth.

“Phil possessed that relaxed sensual swing and subtle shading that won him acclaim as the first English drummer who sounded black, said Ronnie Scott. A yearning for adventure also found him accompanying Billie Holiday at The Royal Albert Hall, cutting numerous jazz and pop sessions, landing the drum chair in West Side Story, recording Joe Harriot's pioneering Free Form and Abstract albums (probed here in a 24-page appendix), and working with beat poet Michael Horovitz, whose contributions, along with John Jack's and Maggie Nichols, are particularly illuminating on the Soho milieu of the time.

The depth of research and degree of detail into Seamens life and the pivotal 1950s/60s period in the development of UK modern and experimental jazz is unsurpassed, while a plethora of revealing new and archive interviews with fellow musicians, producers, music critics and associates are spiked with numerous wild and humorous anecdotes. In places this reads like a Brit-jazz forerunner to the infamous Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of The Gods, with heavy drug and drink consumption, police busts and, er, touring frolics with regional B&B landladies.

However, the endless daily documenting of every gig and player, mostly derived from MM's gig guide, while useful for scholars, can prove repetitive; and the use of asterisks replacing swear words throughout is both unnecessary and annoying.

Following a failed marriage and numerous attempts to get off heroin, Seamen joined Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated in 1963, as R&B took over many London clubs. He still topped MM drum polls, worked
regularly at Ronnie Scott's and the jazz pubs, accompanied Roland Kirk and Freddie Hubbard on tour and played in Georgie Fame's band, while by day he held court in Soho's Drum City in front of awestruck admirers - Charlie Watts, John Stevens and fellow heroin user Ginger Baker - who roped him into prog-jazz supergroup Airforce in 1970.

By now, Seamen was a state-registered addict and life was increasingly problematic: his interviews on addiction and the wider context of the 1950s/60s jazz-drugs interface make for raw reading.

He died almost penniless on Friday 13 October 1972 aged 46, from heroin and barbiturate poisoning following a fall. Seamen was a phenomenal talent, wasted way too soon, and this formidable work now places him back on the top-tier drum stool where he firmly belongs.

Jon Newey


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