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Artist Profiles

The Late Great Phil Seamen

By Published: January 30, 2010
When the small boy Phil Seamen picked up sticks and started drumming away, he employed the 'matched grip'—as any normal kid would. The 'orthodox grip' is an unnatural way to hold two sticks, a remnant of marching music, retained by jazz drummers after the birth of 'the drum set,' seated down in some New Orleans brothel parlour. There is nothing technically to be gained by using the orthodox grip—on the contrary. However, the whole jazz style of playing had been evolved by using the orthodox grip, and so a certain re-invention was required, particularly playing brushes with its crossing over etc. Phil stuck to his initial intuitive matched grip, thereby going right against the prevailing 'official' view: he was told he held his sticks incorrectly, but he paid no attention to that—a rebel from the outset! But using the matched grip was a major contributing factor to how he sounded different: for example he was able to do things over his toms, across and back and forth, because his single-stroke playing was so developed—and generally speaking one's hands are more equal because they perform the same movement. Phil was the only one who played exclusively with that grip, so that in itself makes him an innovator. It seems fair to say that Phil Seamen personally was responsible to a large degree that the matched grip replaced the orthodox grip in Britian. There have been some great rolls in jazz drumming, such as by Jo Jones, Buddy Rich, Cozy Cole, Art Blakey, but Phil Seamen truly had a really nice roll too.

You could fault Seamen for being somewhat of a conservative. He never got into the Elvin Jones thing of opening up the beat, preferring to keep his hihat going, he didn't like Tony Williams' playing, he saw playing 'free jazz' as treason, he kept on using a 24 inch bass drum. But he remained true unto his convictions—and you can't fault a man for that. He had fanatically fought for 'the beat' in the not so beat-conscious European music climate from the moment he hit the scene, having to 'row the Queen Mary through a sea of mars-bars,' as he put it, on many an occasion. He set the standard of 'swing' in Britian, and many a great American musician was flabbergasted by his innate ability. Where did he come from, who are his forebears? Phil Seamen was a spirit.

SOME COLLEAGUES AND QUOTES

Louis Bellson: "The first time I went over to England 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. That was really a thrill, to watch and hear Phil play."

In 1958 Phil visited Paris and went to hear Kenny Clarke at Le Chat Qui Peche. Phil's presence was noticed and Klook invited him to sit in. He remarked to Phil afterwards: "You're the first man on drums I've heard swing since I've been here!" (He had moved to Paris in 1956). Kenny remained a big admirer of Phil ever since that first meeting.

Philly-Joe Jones: "Yeah, Phil and I were friends when I lived in London—we used to hang out together. There were other drummers, like Tony Kinsey and Oxley, you know, they all have their way of playing, but Phil was about the best."

Bassist Kenny Napper: "At his best he was a wonderful drummer, and he had a really fast wit—he was a formidable personality, he was in awe of nobody. One time in a police station, brought in for disorderliness, he was asked to walk the white line and answered: Sure, bring it over here!"

Ginger Baker: "There were few drummers in the world who could come close to Phil Seamen. He was the most wonderful drummer you ever heard. He came to hear me at the Flamingo, I think it was in 1960, I was unaware that he was there till I got off the stage to be confronted by God! And I went back to his flat and we spent all night listening to his African records. For me, Phil's knowledge was like opening the door and letting the sunshine in. Without Phil Seamen I would never have been the drummer I was."

Composer Laurie Johnson: "I used a lot of jazz players in my orchestra. Phil Seamen was always there. He might stand around the whole afternoon [in the recording studio] just to hit a gong. Yet no one could do it quite like Phil. He was an exceptional musician, much more than a drummer."

Bassist Dave Green: "It was always so exciting playing with Phil—you never knew what he would do next! He had the best bassdrum sound I ever heard, sounding like Big Sid Catlett and Max Roach at the same time."


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