Peter Dawn Phil Seamen, ‘Percussion Genius’
(Brown Dog Books, 751pp., £45. Book review by Chris Parker)
The biography of a man generally recognised both by aficionados and fellow musicians as the UK’s greatest ever jazz drummer, Phil Seamen, ‘Percussion Genius’ is, first and foremost, a labour of love. This is both its strength and weakness. Peter Dawn has clearly devoted countless hours to meticulous research, interviews, tracking down illustrative material, combing through contemporary accounts etc., and his biography consequently contains everything any reasonable person could ever wish to know about Seamen. Unfortunately, however, all this invaluable and fascinating information is frustratingly inaccessible to all but the most patient and determined reader, and the book’s lack of a proper index (entries consist merely of long lists of page numbers, so that Ronnie Scott, for example, generates over a hundred entries with no subdivisions) means that the book is difficult to use as a reference tool.
This is a great shame, because Seamen’s story is an absolutely fascinating one: he played with an astonishing variety of seminally important British jazz figures, from Jack Parnell and Ambrose to Joe Harriott, Ronnie Scott and Alexis Korner, not to mention Tubby Hayes, Don Rendell, Stan Tracey et al. – a veritable who’s who of UK jazz as it came into its own in the post-bop era. Seamen was also a unique, contradictory character: a sharp wit and a supremely talented musician, he was, at the same time, a self-destructive junkie; a devoted son and faithful friend, he was also frustratingly unreliable, often a no-show at important gigs and repeatedly courting disaster by over-indulging in drugs and alcohol, culminating in his tragic but ultimately senseless early death from barbiturate poisoning after a fall from a train.
Dawn chronicles Seamen’s life, from its beginning in Burton to its premature end in south London, in painstaking detail, patiently mining sources ranging from the British Sound Archive and the pages of contemporary music magazines such as Melody Maker and Crescendo, to published interviews with a great number of fellow musicians, music journalists, friends and lovers. He has also personally interviewed everyone he could contact with anything to say about Seamen: Michael Horovitz, Pete Brown, Ginger Baker, Val Wilmer, Charlie Watts and a host of others, including Jackie Tracey and ex-wife Léonie Craven, all contribute valuable insights into Seamen’s character and his place in UK jazz history.
Anecdotes abound: Art Themen, for instance, relates how he carried out running repairs on a wounded Seamen during one of their tours together; John Jack (always a keen, percipient observer of all things jazz-related) describes the early days of both Dobell’s, the jazz record shop, and Ronnie Scott’s; promoter Ernie Garside provides a wealth of detail about the jazz scene in the north of England in pre-motorway days; but the effectiveness of such stories is compromised by the book’s besetting sins, repetition, redundancy and clumsiness of presentation (misspellings, grammatical errors and solecisms litter the text). It also contains numerous offensive passages (racial slurs, homophobia and sexism unblushingly reported, but all swearing in interviews confusingly replaced by asterisks), undermining its undoubted value as a comprehensive account of one of the country’s most important musical figures.
Categories: Book review