Thailand's Monarch Is Ruler, Jazz Musician

The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 13, 2006; 3:36 AM

BANGKOK, Thailand -- For so many Thais, King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a father figure for the nation. But for a small group of jazz musicians, he is also the King of Swing.

Bhumibol, the world's longest-reigning monarch who celebrated his 60th anniversary on the throne Monday, has played his saxophone with jazz legends like Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter. He also jams every weekend with local musicians in Thailand, and has composed his own music.

"He is simply the coolest king in the land," the late Hampton said in a 1987 article in the Thai magazine Sawasdee.

The king began his musical education during his school years in Switzerland and decided he wanted to play the trumpet after hearing a band at a hotel. His mother thought the trumpet would be too strenuous for him, however, and "compromised by allowing his majesty to play the saxophone," the king's daughter, Princess Sirindhorn, wrote in a 1996 book.

After purchasing a secondhand sax, Bhumibol played with other Thai students at his residence in Lausanne during school holidays.

His first composition was "Candlelight Blues," and his most popular are the catchy, lighthearted "Love at Sundown" and the more wistful "Falling Rain" _ all written in 1946, the year he became the ninth king of Thailand's Chakri dynasty.

He has written a total of 48 compositions _ some with fox-trot and waltz rhythms, others patriotic, and a few alma maters for Thai universities.

The king described the writing of "Falling Rain" in a 1981 speech.

"I became inspired while I was listening to music on the radio," he said. "I felt the music in my head sounded better, so I turned off the radio and scribbled it down on a piece of paper. I remember that it was in May. People liked that song. They said it was beautiful. I felt overjoyed."

Many of Bhumibol's most popular tunes were influenced by his favorite artists _ Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges of Duke Ellington's Orchestra. Bhumibol used to listen to their records and play along.

"The king's style is Dixieland or New Orleans style, like Sidney Bechet when he plays the soprano saxophone," said Manrat Srikaranonda, a pianist who has played with the king for more than half a century. Benny Carter was also a royal favorite, he said.

After ascending the throne, Bhumibol formed a band to play with him at the palace and set up a new public radio station on which the 14-member band would broadcast live performances each Friday.

In 1956, Benny Goodman played with the king in Bangkok at the Ambara Throne Hall. During a state visit to the United States in 1960, the king played at Goodman's home in New York City.

In 1964, the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Vienna named the king an honorary member _ the first Asian composer to be granted the honor.

More recently, Les Brown and His Band of Renown recorded several of the king's compositions in 1996, but under an agreement with the palace, they can be heard only in Thailand. Brown, who died in 2001, once described Bhumibol as "a superior musician."

"I'm sure if he didn't have the job he has now, he'd be successful as a bandleader," Brown said in the 1996 documentary "Gitarajan," which is about the king and his music.

Of the palace's original Friday band members, only Manrat, its pianist, continues to play with the king today. Their jam sessions having moved from Bangkok to the summer palace in Hua Hin, 140 miles south of the capital.

"We love to play," Manrat, 78, told The Associated Press in an interview granted by the palace. "This is not a duty."

Most of the other contemporary band members are amateurs; they include an architect, an engineer and an adviser to the king. The only professional musician is Manrat's son, 33-year-old Pathorn Srikaranonda, who is also the group's youngest player.

The king, also 78, and the musicians play swing tunes that hearken back to the Big Band era, including standards such as "Take the A Train" by Billy Strayhorn and Glenn Miller's "In the Mood."

"His Majesty has a personal warmth and aura in him," Pathorn said. "When he plays the saxophone, he always finds a way to express it from his inner thoughts. It's unbelievable."


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