From Bangkok to Broadway, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s musical output earned international recognition and left a lasting legacy
In 2011, after I was asked to contribute a chapter on His Majesty King Bhumibol’s musical pursuits for the biography King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work (2012), I took six months to research the topic. Digging into magazine and newspaper archives, interviewing musicians who had participated in recording and performing sessions with the King, and analyzing each of the King’s 48 original jazz works.
I knew that the King had been keen on jazz from quite a young age, and that he was a player and composer of some skill. But the full depth and breadth of his passion for music only came through to me as I sifted through his history and accomplishments in detail.
Many people are aware of His Majesty as a jazz performer from seeing well-known black and white photos of the King playing with legendary American jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. In fact, many renowned international guest musicians visited the palace to play with the King between the 1950s and early 1970s, including Lionel Hampton, Jack Teagarden, James Moody, Benny Carter, Les Brown, Maynard Ferguson and The Preservative Hall Jazz Band. Les Brown recorded several of the King’s compositions in 1996, and described Bhumibol as “a superior musician”.
King Bhumibol’s earliest reported musical memories come from 78rpm vinyl records played on the family’s wind-up Victrola gramophone in Bangkok. Although his parents preferred Western classical fare, the King told Simon Wallace of the Melbourne Jazz Ensemble that the first song he can remember enjoying was a 1928 jazz version of “Old Man River”.
He might never have picked up a saxophone had it not been for the 1932 revolution. Amid the ensuing political instability, Queen Sawang suggested that Bhumibol’s mother, Princess Srinagarindra, take her family to Switzerland. When the family settled in Lausanne in 1933, Prince Bhumibol was six years old. Even as his brother Ananda was named successor to the Siamese throne two years later, the family remained in Switzerland, where an exposure to music developed in a different way from how it might have back in Siam.
In 1942, Prince Bhumibol acquired his first instrument, a second-hand Strasser Marigaux & Lemaire alto sax, for 300 Swiss francs, half paid out of his allowance and half contributed by his mother. The Prince began private lessons with an Alsatian sax instructor in Lausanne, and by the end of 1943 his playing was promising enough that he was invited to join a classical ensemble whose other members consisted of a violinist, a cellist, and a pianist, to play concerts throughout 1943.
As the Prince’s keen interest in jazz intensified, he purchased, in early 1944, a second-hand Le Blanc clarinet, an instrument he maintained throughout his career. Between the ages of 16 and 17, he added guitar and flute to the expanding list of instruments he learned to play. He spent hours practicing alone, playing alto sax along with records by well-known jazz musicians, copying their solo lines and analysing their individual styles.
“IF THE KING LOVES MUSIC, THERE IS LITTLE WRONG IN THE LAND.”
— Mencius (372-289 BC)
To play at Lausanne dinner parties held at the family home, the Prince formed a loose-knit amateur band called Wong Krapong (Tin Can Band) with an open-stage policy; anyone who could play an instrument was welcome to join in. The family’s return to Thailand in 1946 provided a catalyst for Bhumibol’s initial forays into the world of jazz composition, encouraged by his cousin Prince Chakrabandhu Pensiri Chakrabandh, an amateur composer and poet himself who would later serve as a government minister.
The King finished his first piece, “Saeng Tien (Candlelight)”—a complex blues arrangement with a rich, New Orleans-style melody—in April 1946, with Prince Chakrabandhu contributing the Thai lyrics. Internationally, it was to become the King’s most well-known work, covered by dozens of musicians and bands around the world. His musical output might have intensified at this point if it hadn’t been for the death of King Ananda on the 9th of June, 1946. Dealing with the family tragedy, and taking on the royal crown from 1950 forwards, irrevocably changed his life’s course. Still, even with the heavy demands placed on him by kingship, the new monarch managed to average two new songs per year for the next 20 years.
In May 1949, at the age of 21, the King travelled to Paris to attend the Paris International Jazz Festival. It was in Paris that same year that he became enamoured with Sirikit Kitiyakara, daughter of the Thai ambassador to France. Later that year they got engaged in Lausanne, and the couple were married in 1950, just a week before his official coronation ceremony.
Shortly thereafter, the new King accepted an invitation from American theatre and film producer Michael Todd to contribute music to a Broadway stage musical. He offered two songs: “Falling Rain” and “Athit Ap Saeng”. The latter composition, a minor-key jazz ballad firmly based on a beguine or slow rumba, suggests the hand of a composer who is firmly grounded in music theory and capable of expressing deep emotions.
Michael Todd’s Peep Show opened to a packed house on 5 June 1950 at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia, and was controversial for its use of female nudity. The King’s composition, which appeared during the first act finale, was listed in the programme as “Blue Night”, and was described by one American reviewer as “a haunting beguine”. After its Philadelphia residence, the show moved to Winter Garden Theatre at Broadway and 50th in New York on 28 June and ran until 24 February 1951, racking up 278 performances in eight months. On the heels of its mild Broadway hit status, “Blue Day” became one of the more recorded royal compositions outside of Thailand, including versions recorded by the Count Basie Orchestra, the Diane Schuur Trio, and Larry Carlton, who placed the song as the opening track on his album The Jazz King.
Throughout the 60s Bhumibol continued to compose, releasing 17 songs before the end of the decade. The most ambitious work of that time—and, arguably, his entire musical career—was the acclaimed Kinareee Suite. Written in four movements for a ballet interpretation of Manohra, a traditional dance-drama story from southern Thailand, the suite fuses traditional Thai music and dance with Stravinsky-like impressionism, blues, ballet, and modern dance.
In 1964, while the King and Queen were visiting Austria, Vienna’s Niederösterreich Tonkünstler Orchestra performed a concert of the Kinaree Suite at the Vienna Concert Hall. Spirited applause spontaneously erupted from the audience in the middle of the suite, and continued until His Majesty stood up to acknowledge the applause. Afterwards, huge crowds waited outside for a glimpse of the royal couple, shouting ausgezeichnet, (superb), and wunderbar (wonderful) as they left the hall.
As the King aged, palace jam sessions became less frequent, and by the time I was writing my music chapter for the biography, only pianist Manrat Srikaranonda continued to play with the King now and then. When I asked Manrat whether the King ever grew tired of playing the saxophone all night, Manrat answered, “He never gets tired of playing. When you’ve been playing music your entire life, as he has, it’s in your blood.”