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Artist Profiles

The Late Great Phil Seamen

By Published: January 30, 2010
From 1965-66 his regular gig was with the Dick Morrissey Quartet, also worked with the Harry South Big Band, in '67 with Stan Tracey, Joe Harriott. Studied tympani at the Royal School of Music briefly with Sir James Blades: "Phil was so enthusiastic to begin with, but increasingly didn't show up. It was the drugs, you know. It was so sad. He was a percussion genius." Then Philly-Joe Jones turned up in town. Another longtime heroine addict, he came to live in London from 1968-69 as a registered junkie and was unable to work due to stringent Musicians Union rules. Things became ridiculous during this time, with Phil and Philly-Joe having drug-consumption competitions, with an array of powders, pills and potions all stalled out, to see who would slide under the table first. Worked the pubs with pianist Tony Lee. Then, after the break-up of Cream and the short-lived Blind Faith, Ginger Baker formed his own group Air Force, initially for just two concerts, and asked Phil to join. Phil agreed, Ginger was honoured. They began rehearsing in December '69, the premiere was at the Royal Albert Hall on January 17th 1970. Seamen did a bunch of gigs with Air Force—in Birmingham, Denmark, France, the Lyceum in London, and in Holland, but by May found the music too shallow. "Too bloody loud!" was his comment. But this taste of super-stardom and standing ovations by thousands of youngsters seemed to jolt Seamen into some kind of new found self-respect. He became the toast of the jazz-pub circuit. Formed a quartet with Derek Humble in '70, but Derek died in January '71. Regular work in the Brian Lemon Trio, played with Tony Coe, Tubby Hayes. In May 1972 the co-operative group Splinters, an initiative by Stan Tracey, played their first gig. An all-star improvising group, the object was to bring together musicians with different backgrounds: Tubby Hayes, Trevor Watts, Kenny Wheeler, Tracey, Jeff Clyne, John Stevens and Seamen. Phil had always been wary of 'free jazz' but here, as he had done in Joe Harriott's freeform quintet, he played 'time.' The beginnings of Splinters were promising and who is to say what might have been—Phil passed away in October.


So weaned on big band swing and dance music—including the quickstep, foxtrot, waltz et al—Phil got bitten by the bebop bug. This was a musical revolution and he embraced it immediately, as the 'new music' gradually arrived by way of vinyl records. He was one of the vanguard group in Europe to do so. He was knocked out by Kenny Clarke's liberation of the drum set and the new role the drum set was given by Kenny, Art Blakey and Max Roach: this suited his personality, without a doubt coincided with his own belief in 'emancipated' drums, and inspired him to invent his own version. It was well-known by the jazz in-crowd that Dizzy Gillespie had had Chano Pozo in his band, but in London there was the 'real thing' straight from West Africa, centered around Nigerian Ambrose Oladipupo Campbell. Ambrose had been around since 1945, and Phil was a big fan: Ambrose could play both the modern palmwine music and traditional Yoruba rhythms. In 1952 his group the West African Rhythm Brothers found a permanent showcase as residents in the Abalabi club on Berwick Street, a magnet for a cross-section of humanity including regulars such as Kenny Graham, Ronnie Scott, Sir George Bernard Shaw, and Phil Seamen. Phil loved the layered and melodic approach in African drumming and, again, invented an own version on drum set, incorporating it into his already existing style and thereby enrichening his whole approach. He listened to drummers from Africa whenever possible. Kenny Graham and he also fanatically analysed and notated Cuban and Caribbean music. The point being that while Art Blakey started researching Afro rhythms during the 50s in New York, Phil Seamen had been doing the same in London, possibly even starting some years earlier. Phil's drum style was his own sparkling mix of the three elements of big band swing, bebop and Africa.

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