One of the claims made about the king by palace propagandists is that he is a kind of renaissance man, who is excellent at everything. Whether it is solving traffic problems, advising on dams, making rain, taking photos, designing guns or as a musician, the king has remarkable talent.
Bhumibol is an accomplished jazz musician and composer, particularly for his works on the alto saxophone. He was the first Asian composer awarded honorary membership of the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Vienna at the age of 32. He used to play jazz music on air on the Or Sor radio station. In his travels, he has played with such jazz legends as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Lionel Hampton, Maynard Ferguson, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band. His songs can often be heard at social gatherings and concerts. In 2003, the University of North Texas College of Music awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in Music.
For those who wish to listen to the monarch’s compositions, the royal-sponsored Golden Jubilee Network has uploaded 35 of his tunes.
As an official posterior polishing account, the Jubilee site lauds the king as accomplished musician and composer states:
… the King’s accomplishments in music are well known, not only to his Thai subject[s], but also to lovers of music worldwide. He is one of Thailand’s best jazz musicians. He has composed 43 musical works which rank among the most well known in the history of Thai contemporary music. He has shared his musical interests with varied groups of musicians and member of the general public. His achievements in music have been internationally recognized, and has been presented with the highest accolades both in Thailand and abroad.
Thais are essentially forced to listen to the king’s music, whether they like it or not. His music is known in Thailand because he is king, because the palace propaganda tells every school child and everyone else that he is a grand musician. Current musicians are often “encouraged” to record and perform the king’s work.
As far as we can tell, there is no evidence for the claim that the king is “one of Thailand’s best jazz musicians,” although his interest made a particular kind of jazz popular in the country for a time.
Oddly, one of the sources for for the Wikipedia entry on the king’s alleged musical abilities is a 1970s children’s television series:
The king’s abilities as a jazz musician were mentioned by Aunt Jenny (Imogene Coca) in an episode of The Brady Bunch titled “Jan’s Aunt Jenny”, which originally aired on 21 January 1972.
Few attempts have been made to assess the musical claims made about the king. Paul Handley, in The King Never Smiles, comments on the importance of music for the king (pp. 65, 102, 123, 160, 162). He makes a brief assessment at page 162, which is clipped and posted below:
One of the essential elements of the palace propaganda on the king and music is that he must be good as he has “jammed” with a whole bunch of international performers. As the propaganda says:
Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Jack Teagarden, James Moody, Benny Carter, Les Brown, Maynard Ferguson, The Preservative Hall Jazz Band, and many more as guest musicians for impromptu sessions.
It is here with these idols that one can observe the King at his very best. Unlike when he plays with his house band, whose members are mostly amateurs, His Majesty would master his jazz supremacy with all the techniques he has acquired to match with these visitors.
Thanks to a Twitter post by Andrew MacGregor Marshall, PPT was able to view an interview with legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich, who visited Bangkok and played for the palace, being joined by the king.
In 1984, Rich appeared on the Regis Philbin Show, and was briefly asked about playing in the palace in Bangkok. The section of the show featuring Rich is at YouTube, and in the clip below, the comments on the king begin from about 3:48 minutes into the clip.
If you find it hard to catch, Rich is asked about travel. He says he and his band played in Bangkok and that the king played with them. He is asked: “How was he? Any good?”
Rich: He was terrible.
Philbin: Never make the band, right?
Rich: No! No! Couldn’t make the audition, let alone the job.
Philbin: But he thought he was great.
Rich: He thought he was hot.
The interview then talks about playing in the palace to a select audience, saying: “it was great, marvelous.” Rich talks about the concert and makes another comment on the king’s lack of ability:
Rich: Then he [the king] came out and blew the whole thing…. We were great up until he joined us.
Another propaganda claim about the great king is challenged.