A literal King of Jazz has died. Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch and a great lover of jazz, passed away on September 13 at the age of 88 in Bangkok following an extended illness.
Bhumibol was an accomplished saxophonist (along with other woodwinds, trumpet, piano, and guitar) whose musical influences were Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Benny Carter, and Johnny Hodges. He composed 49 tunes, mostly swing numbers, several of which were recorded by Les Brown & his Band of Renown, Claude Bolling’s Big Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. He also wrote marches, waltzes, Thai patriotic songs, and anthems for Thai universities. His most popular compositions were “Candlelight Blues,” “Love at Sundown.” and “Falling Rain,” all composed in 1946.
Born in the United States while his father was attending Harvard University, Bhumibol discovered jazz as a teenager while studying in Switzerland. He took up the saxophone and initially received general music training privately. The King would spend his time practicing jazz by himself and play accompanied by phonograph records of famous jazz bands. Once he had acquired greater confidence and facility with his playing, he would jam with the recordings. So it could be said that in many ways, his “teachers” were really famous jazz musicians performing on his favorite records, especially those that featured Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges.
He succeeded his brother as king at the age of 18 in 1946. On his permanent return to Thailand in 1950, Bhumibol started a jazz band, Lay Kram, with whom he performed on a radio station he started at his Palace. The band grew, was renamed the Au Sau Wan Suk Band, and he would perform with them live on Friday evenings, occasionally taking telephoned requests. The King performed with Benny Goodman in Bangkok’s Ambara Throne Hall in 1956, and later played at Goodman’s home in New York in 1960. Besides Goodman, he played with Benny Carter, Stan Getz, Lionel Hampton, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
In 1964, Bhumibol was inducted into honorary membership of Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts. In 2000, he was awarded the Sanford Medal for his contribution in music from the Yale School of Music. He was the first Asian in both cases to be so honored. In 2003, the University of North Texas College of Music awarded him an honorary doctorate in music. Bhumibol’s influence is widely regarded as one reason why Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, has for decades had a strong jazz and improvised music “scene” relative to other Asian nations.
Cornetist Ed Polcer recalls the time he played for the King. “I had the pleasure of playing with His Majesty in his Palace with an all-star band led by Urbie Green. The King had seen Urbie when he played with Goodman’s sextet in New York City in the 1950s. Most of the tunes he called were from a few CDs that I was asked to send him beforehand.
“He had his Palace Chief Musician transcribe the songs from my CDs, which he rehearsed with his Palace musicians for several weeks before we arrived. It was quite a memorable experience for me with him sitting on a small throne, one level above us. (No one’s head could be higher than the King’s.)
“When he entered the room, everyone bowed in a full kow-tow. I can imagine how unbelievable it must have been for his subjects to see him jamming with us. Several times he called me over to discuss the next tune that he’d like to play. I could hear gasps coming from the audience every time he and I spoke.”
Bassist Richard Simon is another musician who had the honor of performing with the King—first in 2000 and again the following year. He writes:
The King was an exceptional person, by all accounts, and considering he had a pretty demanding “day gig,” he acquitted himself rather well in the front line at his jam sessions.
The King made an entrance that was dazzling in its understatement. He was not at all tall. He wore the black-rimmed glasses and the cool, inward gaze of a computer scientist. He strode towards us with a deliberate gait in a gorgeous purple jacket, more sport coat than kingly robe. We held our collective breath. We started playing just past midnight, the King leading a succession of mostly swing-era standards, generally at a medium tempo. There was an understated dignity about him and his musicianship. He displayed a respectable command of the horns and the material; he seemed mindful that he sat among some formidable musicians, including Plas Johnson (the tenor sax “voice” of “The Pink Panther” and countless recordings), Buddy Childers (of Stan Kenton renown) and the aforementioned Urbie Green. The King was so moved by Plas’s sensuous rendition of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” that our host requested the same tune several times during the night.
As he grew in confidence in the course of the session, King Bhumibol’s playing exemplified one of his published “royal instructions” to the Thai people: “What is important is to progressively build oneself with prudence and moderation, neither by overdoing one’s capacity nor rushing through.”
His was an audience “fit for a king”—an attentive blend of perhaps 40 friends, businessmen and military officers who smiled approvingly and applauded after every solo. There was one brief break, during which his “house” rhythm section sat in—for all of one tune. Then we Americans were summoned back. We literally played all night long. When one of the attendants told the King that the first rays of dawn were sneaking into a distant window, the King lifted his trumpet towards the light and played a credible impression of a crowing rooster!
Dazed and exhausted, we were treated to a royal breakfast hosted by his friend, the President of Thai Airways. No group, he said, had ever played that long with the King at one of these sessions: eight hours! So impressed and grateful was he for our stamina, he raised his glass of orange juice and announced that he was sending us home in Business Class.
Before we left, there were royal handshakes, a photo session and a gift exchange. We each received a replica of the Royal Seal, along with two books—one, a collection of his wisdom, and the other a “royal literary work.”
Only after the long ride home did I come to appreciate the enormous stature of this diminutive individual. Though his office was largely ceremonial, King Bhumibol’s impact on his country was immeasurable, and his beneficent nature is acknowledged by friend and foe alike.
What’s not to admire about “His Majesty the King’s Four Principles of Integrity,” presented to the Thai People some 50 years into his eventful reign?
“(1) To remain honest, to be true to oneself and to do only what is useful and just.
“(2) To restrain oneself, control oneself, and behave with integrity.
“(3) To endure, to maintain self-control and practice economy in order not to commit any sin beyond truthfulness.
“(4) To avoid doing evil, wrongful conduct and to give up personal benefit for the greater good of the whole nation.”
It was a thrill of double magnitude when I was invited back, along with my wife, the following year. Urbie Green and I were the only musicians so honored among the year 2000 guests.
I’ll never forget the quiet congeniality and profound humanity of perhaps the world’s only jazz-playing King—an individual I’ll always remember as “the Thai that binds.”