|Born||August 28, 1926
Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England
|Died||October 13, 1972|
With a solid background in big band music, Seamen played and recorded in a wide range of musical contexts with virtually every key figure of 1950s and 1960s British jazz. Notable examples included Joe Harriott, Tubby Hayes, Stan Tracey, Ronnie Scott, Dick Morrissey, Harold McNair, Don Rendell, Victor Feldman, Dizzy Reece, Tony Coe, Tony Lee, and George Chisholm, to name but a few. Later in his career he worked with Alexis Korner, Georgie Fame, and had a spell with Ginger Baker's Air Force, the leader of the band being one of Seamen's foremost disciples. Drug addiction and alcoholism hampered him throughout his career.
Seamen began playing drums at the age of six, turning professional at the age of 18 by joining Nat Gonella and his Georgians in 1944. He joined the Tommy Sampson Orchestra in 1948, and by 1949, Seamen and tenor saxist Danny Moss had formed a bebop quintet from within the ranks and which was featured on a radio broadcast by the orchestra in September 1949.
He then went on to play in the Joe Loss Orchestra for about 14 months, the most popular dance band of the time. Then the top job with Jack Parnell from 1951 until midway '54, from 12 to 17-piece band. Seamen was much sought after during the 50s, also playing in Kenny Graham's Afro-Cubists projects from 1952–58, from 1954 onwards with the Joe Harriott Quartet, the Ronnie Scott Orchestra and Sextet, and an ever extending list including Dizzy Reece, Victor Feldman, Jimmy Deuchar, Kenny Baker, Vic Ash, Don Rendell, Stan Tracey, Tubby Hayes, Laurie Johnson, as well as blues stars Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White, countless sessions.
He married the young West End dancer Leonie Franklin in 1956, whom he had met while with Parnell, working together in the show Jazz Wagon. On 8 February 1957, Seamen was finally on his way to America, about to fulfill a lifelong dream. The Ronnie Scott Sextet were going over on the Queen Mary to do a tour as part of a Musicians' Union exchange deal. But going through customs in Southampton prior to boarding, Her Majesty's custom officiers took one look at him, pulled him aside and he got busted for possession of drugs; he never visited the States.
In 1958 the West End production of West Side Story opened with him - Leonard Bernstein reputedly specifically asked for him and, despite the heroin and alcohol, the producers hired him. Gene Krupa, Louis Bellson, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones were famous colleagues who held him in great esteem.
During the first half of the 60s he worked often with Tubby Hayes, and Joe Harriott. In 1962 he played a couple of nights with Dexter Gordon at Ronnie Scott's, recorded with Carmen McRae, in 1964 played r&b with Alexis Korner and Georgie Fame. He started teaching in 1962, one of his pupils being Ginger Baker, who went on to influence a whole generation of rock drummers.
However, his heroin addiction meant his health was deteriorating, and increasingly many bandleaders would no longer hire him. He did work at Ronnie Scott's - with British bands, but it is a grave misconception that he was ever 'the house drummer'.
From 1965-66 his regular gig was with the Dick Morrissey Quartet. Seamen also worked with the Harry South Big Band, in 1967 with Stan Tracey and Joe Harriott. He 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."
In 1967 Philly Joe Jones and Seamen met and became good friends.
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 Seamen to join.
The première was at the Royal Albert Hall on 17 January 1970. Seamen did a series of concerts with Air Force, but by May found the music too shallow. "Too bloody loud!" was his comment. But this taste of super-stardom seemed to jolt Seamen into some kind of new found self-respect. He formed a quartet with Derek Humble in 1970, but Humble died in January 1971. Seamen then worked regularly with the Brian Lemon Trio, and 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. Seamen had always been wary of 'free jazz' but here, as he had done in Joe Harriott's freeform quintet, he played 'time'. However, Seamen died the following October.
Seamen was almost as well known for his dishevelled lifestyle as for his drumming, battling both drug addiction and alcoholism until his death. He was equally known for his sharp wit. Demonstrating his skills as a raconteur, an entire side of the LP The Phil Seamen Story was devoted to Seamen's spoken retrospective on his career. In 2009, highlights of his playing from between 1953 to 1972 was released as The Late Great Phil Seamen on SWP Records.
Whereas he had been a jazz star and acclaimed drummer throughout the 50s, as the 60s progressed his heroin addiction caused him big problems and there were periods when he had sunk pretty low. On October 13, 1972 Phil Seamen, then 46, fell asleep in a chair in his flat in Old Paradise Street in Lambeth, south London, and didn't wake up.
He can be seen on DVD backing the great multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk in the documentary film Sound (1967), and there are two other video clips of him playing to be seen on YouTube - one with Don Rendell and one backing Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.