Phil Seamen was born in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire in 1926. By the time of his death in 1972 he had become a legend on the British jazz scene. He came to prominence playing with big bands after the war, including Ken Turner and Nat Gonella in 1946/7, Tommy Sampson in 1948, then Joe Loss and Jack Parnell through to the early 1950s. |
Given this, it is not surprising that his drumming was notable more for technical prowess than stylistic originality although his time with Jack Parnell's noisy exuberent band was more rewarding in that he was put in the spotlight for regular drum battles with Parnell, who was himself a fine drummer but preferred to front the band, do a few vocals and leave the drumming work to Seamen...
Possibly things might have been different if Seamen had been able to devote more time to jazz, for this was certainly where his interests lay and what had brought him into music. As it was, after the big bands collapsed he spent a good part of his time in studio work for which his technical assurance and ability to read any part on sight aptly fitted him. No doubt he needed the money for by this time he was well into his narcotics problem, but while he was playing what somebody else had written, often in music far removed from jazz, he was perpetuating his own musical anonymity. He was at this stage a full-time musician but only a part-time jazz musician.
He worked with Ronnie Scott's big band in 1955 and worked with Scott on and off through to 1957. In the mid 1950s led his own group with Joe Harriott, Dave Goldberg, Johnny Weed and Major Holley. It did not record under Seamen's name but did record as the Joe Harriott Quartet, for some reason guitarist Dave Goldberg failed to make the date. Then through the second half of the 1950s he recorded with all the major jazz musicians in London. His club work was secondary to the studio work but there were fine moments with the Tubby Hayes Quartet, Joe Harriott and for those lucky enough to hear them his club dates with Dizzy Reece between 1957 and 1959. These were the rare weeknight gigs at the Flamingo (rarely Saturday or Sunday night, when the crowds went), and at the long forgotten Star Club. In these fugitive sessions Seamen was getting into a complex method that ran somewhat parallel to what Elvin Jones was doing involving a constant flow of invention sustained often at the expense of the cymbal beat.
As jazz recording work began to decrease in the early 1960s he branched out to work with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and gigs with Georgie Fame. He did theatre work and some teaching, his star pupil being Ginger Baker.
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From 1964 to 1968 he spent much time at Ronnie Scott's as resident drummer backing American musicians such as Johnny Griffin, Stan Getz, Roland Kirk and Freddie Hubbard. Then from 1969 to 1970 he worked with Ginger Baker's heavy rock band Air Force recording and touring with the group. The last two years of his life were spent with his trio playing London jazz oriented pubs, notably the Bull's Head, Barnes and the Hope and Anchor in Islington when his trios often included pianists Harry South or Brian Lemon, and bass players Phil Bates or Kenny Baldock, who worked with him regularly, for the last five years of his life.
Phil Seamen was a man of great humour and trenchant wit and his early death in 1972 at the age of 46 came at a time when things were starting to look up for him. He had been a professional musician for over twenty-five years and had led a tangled and chaotic life for most of that time. He was a victim of a drug addiction that had blighted his career for a number of years.
At the time of his death he was devoting most of his time to jazz drumming and was achieving a consistency not always reached before and a complex style, rich in detail, with dense polyrhythms and he was one of the very few drummers still prepared to use sticks on a hi-hat cymbal to keep time. He was different to other jazz drummers in that he used a large bass drum and a surprisingly small open cymbal within a minimal cymbal set-up giving his work a very "drummy" sound. Other drummers of the time were copying what they percieved to be Philly Joe Jones methods and were striving for an extremely cymbalistic texture.
From the very beginning he had all the basic virtues including beautiful time, energy and an innate musicality that transcended bop but it has to be admitted that his drumming never swung in the classic way, and did not have the effortlessness of movement which all the really great jazz drummers possess, even in the most complex of styles. What it did have, though, was tremendous forward momentum building up and releasing enormous tensions; it is easy to see why most of those who played with him remember so clearly how he used to push them.
He recorded with all the jazz musicians of the time - two notable occasions being with Dizzy Reece on the Tempo 'Progress Report', although he is somewhat under recorded, and the sessions with Joe Harriott when they were creating the first European free (or abstract) jazz. His sound did not transfer to record at all well, perhaps this inability to achieve real impact on record derived in part from his studio career and the necessity to be anonymous on commercial sessions.
In 1972 Decibel Records issued an LP (catalogue no: BSN 103) titled Phil Seamen Story. The first side, recorded in 1966, is devoted to Seamen talking and playing drums and the narrative covers his beginnings in the music business and his time on the road in the last years of the big bands in this country up to his time with Jack Parnell in 1953. In October, 2011 Proper Box Records issued a 4 CD compilation titled Seamen's Mission: Phil Seamen covering Phil's playing career from 1952 to 1959. An earlier collection of Seamen's work The late, great Phil Seamen is still availabe...
The earliest Phil Seamen recording date that I can trace goes back to 1946 when he was playing with Nat Gonella's Georgians. This band had a number of future jazz stars including Kenny Graham....
Nat Gonella and his Georgians - July 22nd, 1946 (Decca RFL12)
Nat Gonella, Monty Montgomery, Bruts Gonella, Fred Dinning (tp), Frank Osbourne (tb), Bertie King, Sandy Herd (as), Ronnie West, Kenny Graham (as,ts) Al Dallaway (p,arr), Roy Plummer (g), Lennie Bush (b), Phil Seamen (d).
As far as I can trace the Phil Seamen Quintet recorded only one title as part of an LP from a live concert recording. Other tracks on the record are by other groups...
Phil Seamen Quintet - November 10th, 1956 (Decca LK4180) (JM0657)
Ken Wray (bs-tp), Johnny Weed (p), Dave Goldberg (g), Stan Wasser (b), Phil Seamen (d).
(*Vocalion CD - Third Festival of British Jazz - 1956)
The recording detailed below was made at the BBC Studios in London some time in 1956 but was never released in any format until Gearbox Records issued a limited edition of 500 LPs in June, 2011...
Phil Seamen Quintet - 1956 (BBC Jazz Club)
Joe Harriott (as), Dave Goldberg (g), Johnny Weed (p), Major Holley (b), Phil Seamen (d).
My Heart Belongs to Daddy/Gone With The Wind/Poinciana/Big Man.
Phil Seamen and others - 1966 (Phil Seamen Story - Decibel BSN 103)
Side one of this LP consists of Phil Seamen talking and playing drums. Side two has four titles, three from a quartet of : Tony Coe (ts,cl), Brian Lemon (p), Kenny Baldock (b), Phil Seamen (d).
Side two has four titles, three as above and one from a group comprising: Dick Morrissey (ts), Tony Coe (ts,cl), Harry South, Brian Lemon (p), Phil Bates, Kenny Baldock (b), Phil Seamen (d), Jimmy Witherspoon (vocal).
I Gotta Girl.
Phil Seamen Trio - 1968 (Now...Live - Verve S/VLP9220) recorded live at The Bull's Head and Royal Oak, London.
Tony Lee (p), Tony Archer (b), Phil Seamen (d).
On A Clear Day You Can See For Ever/Whose Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf/Can't Buy Me Love/T Spoke/Vacushna/On Green Dolphin Street/Something Special/Gaslight/What Kind Of Fool Am I/Three O'clock In The Morning/C'est Si Bon.
Phil Seamen Trio - July 22nd,1968 (Phil Seamen meet Eddie Gomez - Saga OPP102).
Tony Lee (p), Eddie Gomez (b), Phil Seamen (d).
Night Train/Salt Peanuts/Corcovado/A Foggy Day/Bluesette/Fish This Week/Autumn Leaves/Here's That Rainy Day.
Phil Seamen - December 17th, 1971 (Phil on drums - A jam session at the Hideaway - "77" SEU12/53) Live at "Country Club", Highgate.
Gerry Salisbury (cnt), Ray Crane (tp), Keith Christie, John Picard (tb), Sandy Brown (cl), Tommy Whittle (ts), Brian Lemon (p), Lennie Bush (b), Phil Seamen (d).
Allen's Alley (GS,RC,SB out)/It's A Wonderful World/When Sonny Gets Blue (GS,RC,KC,JP out)/Just Squeeze Me.
Phil Seamen - 1972 (Phil Seamen Story Decibel BSN103St)
Tony Coe (cl,ts), Brian Lemon (p), Kenny Baldock (b), Phil Seamen (d).
Perdido/Blue 'n' Boogie/Chinatown, My Chinatown.
Phil Seamen's name appears on many pages of this website. I have not attempted a personal discography because he appeared on so many recording with so many people but much of the detail of his jazz record career can be seen in the following discographies: Ronnie Scott, Tommy Pollard, Victor Feldman, Dizzy Reece, Don Rendell, Jimmy Deuchar, Vic Ash, Harry Klein, Joe Harriott, Stan Tracey, Tubby Hayes, Kenny Graham, Jack Parnell, Kenny Baker, Ian Carr, Dick Morrissey.