Jazz Professional               



Remembering Phil

Click to enlarge
Although he died in 1972 the legends of Phil Seamen will live on. Here are some of them, put together by Ron Simmonds (rs).y of rnhard Castiglioni Drummer World

Here’s a story to warm the heart. When I met up with Gene Krupa not so long ago, he asked me if I ever saw Phil Seamen. “When next you do”, he said, “be sure to tell him how much I enjoyed his wonderful drumming in ‘West Side Story’. It gave me a real kick.” Gene had seen the show while he was over in England, so obviously Phil’s performance had lingered in his mind. I happened to run into Phil down at Ronnie Scott’s Club not long afterwards and I passed on the tribute.

Phil’s face worked for a few seconds and I thought he was going to laugh. Then he sat down suddenly and wept. Wally Thompson

There was a band session and the musicians were becoming increasingly peeved at the disorganisation and the fruitless passage of time. The conductor, sensing their mood, addressed a few soothing words.

“All right fellers, we’ll get things moving soon.”

“I hope so,” spoke up Phil from the back. “I turn into a flippin' pumpkin at midnight.”

Ours isn’t very conducive to jazz. I use a lot jazz players in my orchestra. Phil Seamen is always there. He might stand around the whole afternoon just to hit a gong. Yet no one can do it quite like Phil. He’s an exceptional musician. Much more than a drummer. If he played any other instrument, he’d be internationally famous. He’s quite a person. Laurie Johnson

 . . . and the frightening news that the great Phil Seamen has joined Alexis Körner, the RandB King! What next? Milt Mendoza . . .

He spent a year with Gordon Homer at the Coronation Ballroom, Ramsgate. “This was a very good big band. I wrote a lot of scores for it. I did my first broadcast with Gordon. Phil Seamen, only 20 then, was the drummer and it was obvious to me that he was destined to become one of the most exciting drummers in the world. Brian Fahey

Backstage during the Tenor Of Jazz concert at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, the amiable Bud Freeman, in his immaculately cut Savile Row suit, looked more like a successful stockbroker than a jazzman. Bud was buttonholing newspapermen and critics and enthusing about Phil Seamen, who’d just been accompanying him onstage. “See here, you writers,” implored Bud, “you’ve just got to tell everyone that Phil Seamen is one of the world’s greatest drummers.” Well, of course, many of us have been doing just that for a long time now.

After West Side Story had been on for some time Phil Seamen acquired a beautiful Alsatian dog. He and the pup loved each other so dearly that they couldn’t bear to be parted even for a couple of hours and Phil brought him in to the pit one night to sit by him behind the drums.

He sat there quietly through the overture and for most of the following dance number. Things were going along nicely as usual and we were building up the usual powerful crescendo as the gangs leapt around on the stage up above. Then we reached the point when the timpani player had to come over and lay into a set of iron pipes that were suspended just by Phil’s head.

The timpani player was a very small man, so the dog hadn’t seen him before, hidden as he was by all the equipment. Happening to glance around he suddenly saw what looked like a strange man about to hit his dearly beloved over the head with a very wicked looking hammer. I should say his contribution to the following grand ensemble was a good treble-forte, but although it fit in admirably with the desperate din then reigning (indeed, I’m convinced that Bernstein would have written it into the score immediately had he heard it), the dear doggy wasn’t watching his part and went on after we had all stopped. Until Phil managed to get both hands around his muzzle, that is.

All we got then was a strangled cursing sound coming out of his nose, but by then they had gone into dialogue on stage and the dog was more audible.

Lawrence Leonard, the conductor, had had the shock of his life and was peering around frantically. Not seeing anything in the gloom, he jotted a note and sent it around the band. It said, “Has anyone got an animal in the pit?” We passed it back to Phil, who took immediate offence and began to write a reply with a very scratchy pen, resting the paper on his snare drum with the snare on. The noise was incredible! Retch-retch-retch! Retcha retcharetch! Retch! “No-one’s going to call my dog a bloody animal,” he snarled. I could see Lawrence Leonard on his knees before us, hands clasped together as in prayer, his usual position when pleading for a double piano.

But Phil went on to the end of his letter and delivered it to Lawrence personally under the stage a few minutes later. They had a tremendous row there! Later on another note appeared, this time on the band room wall and more diplomatically worded. “In future, no livestock allowed in the pit during performances.” rs

Phil Seamen had a wooden ball from a coconut shy, drilled (as a bass drum beater), which gave a healthy sound.

The next morning we had to catch a train at about 9 a m, I don't remember where we were going. The train came in, very crowded, we all rushed on it, it was a corridor type train full of commuters, with compartments with four seats each side. Phil and I got seats in the middle, facing each other. The train started, and Phil promptly fell asleep.

After a while he woke up, leant across to me and asked "what have you been doing?" I said that I had just been to see Katherine Dunham's dancers at the Coliseum. Right away Phil was off about the African drummers she always had with her. He started off by telling me how they played the basic African triplet with two beats with each hand, not alternate beats in alternate hands.

By now he was leaning across, we were knee to knee.

"You play the triplets and I'll show what else they did", he said. So now I am trying to play the triplets on one knee,( two beats with each hand), while he is singing and playing other beats on my other knee.

Meanwhile, the other occupants of the compartment are peering round their newspapers in amazement

Life was never dull with Phil! Mike Senn

It (The Mission) was always a full house. Johnny Keating and his wife had the flat on the top floor, but the rest of the place was free to all comers. All except one first-floor room permanently occupied by Miss Frost.

Who was she? Nobody knew for sure it was whispered that she had some dreadful sort of job in a women’s prison but she was there long before we all arrived and she complained bitterly and unceasingly about the din and the practising which went on at all hours.

One Christmas, filled with good cheer, we decided that she wasn’t to be left out of the proceedings any longer and so Phil Seamen and Derek Humble, greatly daring, managed to lower a portable wind-up gramophone (don’t ask me how) from an upstairs window on to her balcony with Johnny Hodges playing, appropriately, “Going Out the Back Way”. The next morning we were all thrown out, and that was the sad end of The Mission. rs

Then the first time I came over here I heard Jack Parnell’s band, and he had Phil Seamen playing drums with him and he was a terrific player. Boy, he could really swing, and do all the things that he had to do. There was an example of a guy that took care of business in a big band. Unfortunately, he didn’t make too many records. That was really a thrill, to watch and hear Phil play. Louie Bellson

When the Basie band came to London in the ‘50s, it caused quite a stir. The lead trumpet, Reunald Jones, not only sat next to the drummer but he was also playing one-handed, with his left arm wrapped around his tummy.

Obviously, this was the latest thing, and copying it would enable us to play better at once. I immediately moved over by the drums and began playing one handed. The result was electrifying! I began missing every third note, and our drummer, Phil Seamen, told me to buzz off in no uncertain terms. rs

Back in the ‘50s, in the days before tape recorders, Phil used to carry a small portable wind-up gramophone around with him, everywhere he went. He would play this in the band bus while we were travelling. This called for great dexterity on his part and much skilful cooperation on the part of the driver. In spite of the difficulties we managed to hear quite a lot of music on the way to the gigs.

After a while some joker began tapping out some of Bird’s solos with a pencil on the window. Someone immediately identified the solo correctly. Then everyone started doing it.

The guys eventually became so good at naming solos in that way, that one day, as I was knocking out my pipe into the ashtray, Joe Temperley spun around and said: “Clifford Brown, ‘Sandu’, last eight bars.” rs

Later on, when Phil was trying to straighten himself out, Stan Roderick took him along on one of his fishing trips. I was surprised at this, because it meant them setting out at 4.30 in the morning. When I asked Phil what they did on one of these outings he replied, “We sit.”

“And talk?”


“Fish, then?”

“No. Just sit.” rs

‘Dinner is served.’ Phil Seamen, drummer, after hitting the gong in West Side Story

'Bring out your dead.' Phil Seamen, playing Stan Kenton’s Somnambulism with the Tommy Sampson band

'I don’t know about you, Mayor Ponsonby, but I had a ball.' Phil Seamen to Mayor of Manchester after the premier of West Side Story . . .

One Sunday morning, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne with Jack Parnell's band, Phil and I went out to buy newspapers. Just before we reached the shop we passed trombonist Mac Minshull standing outside reading a Sunday paper. He was holding it high up, opened out fully at arms' length, so he didn't see us.

As we passed by Phil took out his lighter and set fire to the paper. We walked on, and looked around as we reached the shop.

Mac was still holding the newspaper, pretending to read it as it slowly disintegrated, only dropping it at the last moment. He came back into the shop, shaking his head slowly. We all kept straight faces.

'Hey! Did you see that?' he said to the shopkeeper. 'My newspaper caught fire.' rs

In the Tommy Sampson band bus one of Phil’s favourite pastimes was to take a mouthful of Coca-Cola and go and sit in front of Dave Lindup, one of the tenor sax players. Little dribbles of cola came out of his mouth with the jerking of the bus. Dave squirmed around all over the place protesting, because he knew that at any moment Phil was going to squirt the stuff all over him. rs

Sadly juxtaposed with this later on the same night, Radio 3’s ‘Jazz Notes’ was a programme marking what would have been the 70th birthday of the wonderful drummer Phil Seamen.

I didn’t hear it but Ron Simmonds picked it up in Spain and thought it excellent. Among the recollections of Phil, I gather, were his start with Nat Gonella (guitarist Dave Goldberg was in the same band) and his drum duets with Jack Parnell in the latter’s band of the early fifties of which Ron was also a member. They weren’t mere chase choruses, I recall, but two-man drum solo passages brilliantly executed in perfect unison. Clearly this was yet another programme deserving an earlier time slot. Brian Gladwell

The most colourful of drummers in those days was, of course, Phil Seamen. Phil was a great drummer, way ahead of his time. Even today most visiting American musicians eventually get around to wanting to hear my stock of stories about Phil.

Tommy Sampson discovered him playing in Smiling Johnny Smith’s band in Southsea and booked him in the band at once. Even then as an amateur, Phil had some unusual ways.

One of them was the unorthodox way he held his sticks. While other drummers used regular, standard length sticks, Phil sawed about a third off his. He held the stumps gripped in his fists, pointing downwards. It is supposed to be impossible to play like this, but that was the way he did it.

He played on a set of drums he called the Ronson Kit, because of the big ashtray screwed to the top of the bass drum. Phil was highly critical of contemporary British drummers, especially of Peter Coleman, who played drums with Vic Lewis. He called Peter Bludgeonfoot on account of his heavy bass drum technique, although when I worked with Peter I didn’t find him any heavier in that respect than anyone else.

When he played solo Phil pulled terrifying faces. In the throes of violent motion his head whipped from side to side as he bent low over the snare drum, snarling horribly and hitting everything in sight. With the terrific vibration it was only a matter of minutes before his drums began to fall apart.

I was the only one in the back row who knew how to fix them so I went over and crouched beneath him trying to screw everything together again. This wasn’t easy because the things were leaping around all over the place under his tremendous assault. I was never entirely successful, and he’d start hitting me on the head with the sticks and cursing.

If the front spikes of the bass drum had worked loose the whole kit began sliding slowly forwards off the rostrum, with me on my knees battling valiantly beside it. I don’t really know whether Phil knew what he was doing at such moments, because when I told him I wasn’t going to do it any more, on account of the physical dangers involved he didn’t know what I was talking about. rs

All the famous jokers of jazz, even ultimately tragic figures such as Frank Rosolino or Phil Seamen, are remembered and celebrated as the gloriously talented musicians they were.

That heads the list of reasons to be cheerful. Therein lies the true joy of jazz. Charles Melville

The Tubby Hayes Quartet was booked to play at a Jazz Festival in Eastern Europe, around 1959/60. They were to go on after an Eastern Europe (EE) jazz group. The EE group finished playing, left the stand, and stood at the side to listen to Tubby.

As usual, Phil was late, still setting up his kit. The audience grew restlesss, so Tubby said to Phil, "We'll have to start without you." So Tubby started playing with piano and bass.

When Phil had set up his hi-hat, the EE drummer, who was at the side of the stand, reached across and with his hand began to slap it down on the off-beat. Phil picked up a drumstick, and rapped the EE drummer across the knuckles with it.


The EE group bristled threateningly. Tubby, who was out the front playing and watching out of the corner of his eye while all this was going on, thought that it would all be off. However Phil sat down and began to play. When the EE group heard him play, it was Ah! Phil, and smiles all round. Mike Senn

In the fall of 1957, I was a member of the Oscar Rabin band, which was resident at the Lyceum Ballroom in the Strand. We were scheduled to appear in that year's Jazz Jamboree.The personnel was as follows:

Cecil Pressling, Brian Hayden, Roy Sidwell, Don Pashley and Don
Don Honeywill (Saxes)
Gordon Rose, Arnie Tweedy, Billy Turner and Jo Hunter (Tpts)
Bill Geldard, Pete Myers, Ron Spillet (Tmbns)
Arthur Greenslade, (Piano)
Bill Sutcliffe (Bass)
Dougie Cooper (Drums)

On that fateful day, upon arriving at the Gaumont State, Kilburn, I discovered that our drummer had a case of the vapours, and would be replaced, temporarily, by the amazing Phil Seaman.

The band absolutely soared as a result and I, as a nineteen year old, who had never experienced such a great drummer, was swept off my feet. Oscar was swept off his feet, too, so Phil also played with the band for the afternoon and evening sessions at the Lyceum.

I later learned that Oscar had asked, "How much does he want?" Needless to say, Phil declined the offer and the band slipped back into its old ways. We played all the right notes well, but we did not raise any heartbeats.

What I found most significant about the whole affair was that even an old businessman like Oscar could feel the difference. Pete Myers, Hollywood

Copyright © 2003Jazz Professional. All Rights Reserved.