Reading and Listening in Tribute to His Majesty King Rama IX

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Early Studies.

In the collection of the Thammasat University Libraries is the biographical account King Bhumibol and the Thai Royal Family in Lausanne: Recollections of HM King Rama IX’s Tutor. It was assembled by Lysandre Séraïdaris. Translated from the French by Dr. Jindarat Jumsai na Ayudhya, the book was originally published in Switzerland as Le roi Bhumibol et la famille royale de Thaïlande à Lausanne. Les souvenirs du précepteur du roi Rama IX. The book’s editor is a son of Cléon Séraïdaris, a Lausanne lawyer of Greek origin who supervised the education of His Majesty King Rama VIII, and HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej when they were boys. In 1936, the elder Séraïdaris was introduced to HRH Princess Mahidol, who asked if he would tutor her sons. Full of appealing historical photos in black and white of the children at their intellectual and sporting pursuits, the book contains much detail about how the Royal Princes were guided to understand a wide range of scholarly and extracurricular activities. They enjoyed woodworking, skiing, ice-skating, table tennis, mountain climbing, bicycling, and mushroom picking. The Nation and The Bangkok Post reviewed this book enthusiastically. The Nation quotes the author about his father:

[Mr.] Seraidaris says that his father steadfastly refused to write of his experiences prior to his death in 1997, saying that his professional life and his memories did not belong to him but to His Majesty. “My father always said ‘I will not write if His Majesty does not ask me to do so’. It just happened that His Majesty encouraged me to write. I was very proud that His Majesty trusted me. He thought this book would be good for history. The King offered to make corrections if there were any mistakes but he didn’t need to correct anything, he says. I am neither a writer nor a historian but I happened to have information about the past that had never been made public, so I decided to write the book. I am extremely proud of the trust His Majesty placed in me, but it was a delicate undertaking because I knew there could be no mistakes. There are many things I chose not to develop as I preferred to stick to facts of which I have evidence both in my memory and in my papers.”

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Among the light-hearted letters reproduced here is one from 1938 by King Ananda Mahidol who informs his tutor:

We are not suffering from heat, but from mosquitoes.

To prove the point, the letter includes a squashed mosquito between its pages. Also describing the war years and after, King Bhumibol and the Thai Royal Family in Lausanne mentions how as a skilled cabinet-maker, Cléon taught the boys to create model planes and miniaturized versions of Thai warships. Cléon remained a trusted advisor to the family until his retirement. For a video of the editor briefly speaking about his father, the Royal tutor, click here.

Listening to Beautiful Music

In the Rewat Buddhinan Center of the Pridi Banomyong Library, listeners may enjoy the CD Rhapsody on the Themes of His Majesty King Rama IX performed by the NHK Symphony Orchestra conducted by Norio Maeda. As all Thais know, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej was a greatly gifted composer and instrumentalist. He was a skilled saxophone player and jazz composer of gracefully swinging, blithe, and tender melodies. As his biographies note, His Majesty first started to study the saxophone in Lausanne when he was 15 years old, under the guidance of an Alsatian teacher. At first he had tried to play the accordion, since his brother and sister were playing the piano. He found that the accordion’s sound did not go well with the piano. Instead, after attending a concert at a hotel in Arosa, Switzerland, HM King Rama IX was intrigued by the trumpet. His mother convinced him that playing the trumpet might be too strenuous, so the saxophone was agreed upon as a compromise. King Rama VIII and King Rama IX both decided they wanted to play the saxophone. They soon bought a second-hand saxophone, with the Princess Mother paying for half and the rest of the cost covered by the Club Patapoum, a two-member private club formed by the two brothers. When the first day of lessons arrived, King Rama VIII pushed his brother into the room to take his place and took up the clarinet instead. At first King Rama IX studied classical music, gradually advancing to jazz which he relished for its lively rhythms and improvisatory freedom. He played the saxophone along with recordings of noted jazz bands, as most young aspiring musicians have done. Among his favorite saxophonists were Sidney Bechet, Johnny Hodges, and Benny Carter, all African-Americans of an earlier generation than Charlie Parker. Although Benny Carter was born long before Charlie Parker, he had a healthier lifestyle and lived until the age of 95.

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King Rama IX as Jazz Composer

HM The King would eventually learn to play the soprano, tenor, and baritone saxophones, the clarinet, and the trumpet. With such wide instrumental interests, it was natural that he also began to compose jazz music. Starting in his teens, and while obviously attending to many other heavy responsibilities, HM the King managed to find time to compose around two melodies per year for more than twenty years, creating a delightful catalogue of songs of many different moods and purposes. Although done in the true amateur sense – for the love of music – HM the King’s jazz musicianship was of a high level that impressed professionals. During a 1960 state visit to the United States, he was urged to play clarinet for two numbers with a band, Ken Alford’s Dixie Cats, in Honolulu, Hawaii. This band was more than just of local interest. The internationally celebrated jazz superstars Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman had also performed as guests of the Dixie Cats. On the same trip, in New York His Majesty played the saxophone with Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Lionel Hampton, and Stan Getz, some of the finest jazz musicians who ever lived. Another distinguished ensemble, Les Brown and His Band of Renown, recorded some of HM the King’s compositions in 1996.

Playing in company.

Doubtless inspired by his experiences listening to and playing with jazz ensembles, HM the King formed his own Dixieland/New Orleans-style group, Wong Lay Kram (The Vintage Band), which performed once a week on Fridays. These performances were eventually broadcast. By this time the singer, composer and bandleader Eua Sunthornsanan (1910-1981) had already founded Thailand’s first Western-style jazz orchestra, the Suntharaporn band. Khun Eua helped to popularize the Luk krung (child of the city) style, also called phleng luk krung, so named to indicate its difference from less polished rural folk music. Alertly snappy, this music raised spirits and was easy to hum along with or dance to. Jazz had already been heard in Thailand since the 1930s, and its popularity slowly grew. Not all Thai listeners were ready to accept Western-influenced sounds, preferring more traditional tunes, but eventually jazz was more widely enjoyed in the Kingdom, thanks to the splendid creative example set by HM King Rama IX.

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(All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).