For six decades, His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej has
inspired, entertained and encouraged the Thai people in
countless ways. One of these is through music, and His Majesty’s
songs, ranging from jazz to classical to patriotic anthems, have
been performed not just in Thailand but internationally by
some of the world’s leading musicians and orchestras
His Majesty and HRH
Crown Prince Maha
Vajiralongkorn perform a
On Saturday nights, a group of some 10 professional and
amateur musicians, most in their 60s and 70s, gather together
at Klai Kangwol Palace by Hua Hin beach for a jazz
These well-seasoned musicians take their time to find
their seats, with instruments in hand, lips to the mouthpiece,
fingers to the keys, until the band leader looks up,
Suddenly, as if rejuvenated by the spell of the music, the
gray-haired band members come alive with youthful exuberance,
adroitly creating sounds as fresh as musicians in
On the saxophone is none other than 78-year-old HM
King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Until the wee hours of Sunday morning, the King and his
Au Sau Wan Suk Band members fill the sultry air of Hua Hin
with smooth jazz from a wide selection of styles — Dixieland,
New Orleans, Big Band chart-toppers — sometimes
with an interlude of one of the King’s own compositions.
Until his retirement from public performance some two
decades ago, the King had awed Thai audiences with cool
jazz, then novel to Thai society, in a weekly radio broadcast
of concerts from university and public stages that ran from
the early 1950s through to the 1970s.
As if a king blowing his sax for the joy of his subjects isn’t
remarkable enough, His Majesty also made Thailand internationally
famous for his role as a highly-recognized
musician, particularly in the jazz world. His name has been
listed in jazz websites and jazz encyclopedias, from the esteemed
Vienna music academy in Austria to the coveted Yale
music school in the US.
Marking the 60th anniversary this year of his first musical
composition, the prolific King has produced 48 outstanding
pieces ranging from romance to march to ballet
suites, in classic, blues, jazz, pop and alma maters. Many
of them have become all-time classics including Saeng
Tien (Candlelight Blues) Sai Fon (Falling Rain) and Porn
Phi Mai (New Year’s Greeting), to name a few. And not only
in Thailand, some fine selections of his compositions have
reverberated across the globe in prestigious concert halls
and informal settings alike as his songs have been included
in the albums of some leading jazz musicians and prestigious
THE KING WITH MUSICAL EARS
“To glorify His Majesty’s musical talent isn’t flattery. For,
from my professional point of view, the King’s musical talent
is genuine,” says a close aide to His Majesty the King,
himself a distinguished musician who wishes to maintain
anonymity, “He is quite extraordinary as a composer and
remarkable as a musician”.
An articulate composer, the self-taught King has developed
music-writing skills and become accomplished in
this craft. “In his early teenage years in Switzerland, he took
private saxophone lessons. The rest – jazz music and song
composition – was self-taught through reading and grueling
practice. The technique he has developed in music
writing is so comprehensive that he could excel in it by
producing outstanding works of music. He composes music
with a complexity of notes simultaneous with chords, and
yet maintains all the requirements of music’s rules. This is
a process that only a few song writers could achieve,” says
“His Majesty’s compositions,’’ he goes on, “are diversi-
fied in style and mood. When His Majesty creates a romantic
song, it is truly sweet and romantic. But when he
produces a march, it is filled with all the bold elements required
for this martial style. And both achieve a distinct
Nevertheless, what he sees beyond HM the King’s gifts
is his unwavering determination. “When the King intends
to do anything, he would work hard until he achieves. The
same is true in his determination to acquire musical skills,”
This is evident with his mastery of skills that, sometimes,
outdoes professional foreign musicians during their
The musician recalls a visit by the Preservation Hall Jazz
Band from New Orleans some years back. The impromptu
|LEFT TO RIGHT: In the late 1940s, HM the
King, who is self-taught,
composed music while a
student in Lausanne,
Several of HM the King's
compositions reflect his
love and passion for his
In the early 1960s, His
Majesty established the Au
Sau Radio Station. He is
seen here tuning the
transmitter at the station.
Jamming with US jazz idols
(drums) and Urbie Green
HM the King was the first
Asian composer to receive
membership in Die
Akademic fur Musik und
Darstellende Kunst (The
Institute of Music and Arts of
the city of Vienna).
||CLOCKWISE, FROM LEFT: For over a decade, His
Majesty has inspired the
public as well as university
students with his cool
jazz in live performances
with Au Sau Wan Suk Band.
His Majesty the King
performs outdoors in rural
Thailand in the late 1950s.
Among those enjoying the
music is Her Majesty the
Queen, far left.
His Majesty took the
clarinet and jammed with
the Dixieland Jazz Band
during a reception hosted
for him in Hawaii in 1960.
His Majesty the King and
the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,”
Elvis Presley, during His
Majesty's visit to the US in
Echo is among the few
songs written by HM the
King with English lyrics.
session soared to the height of its thrilling mood so much
so that one trumpeter impulsively strode down the bandstand
blowing his trumpet. Simultaneously, he heard another
trumpet blazing down from the stand. “He almost
threw his own trumpet away with amazement as the crisp
sound from the stand was so powerful and so distinctive.
It was His Majesty the King who blew it”.
“Once, a young clarinetist was impressed by His Majesty’s
tremendous power in performance despite his age, and
asked his advice in fingering techniques to attain highpitched
tones that he could not achieve. His Majesty pointed
to his lips saying that it was the strength of the lip muscles,
not the fingers,”
Unlike singers, whose voices may falter with age, outstanding
musicians mostly can maintain their performance
if they continuously rehearse. His Majesty, he further explains,
is dexterous with all wind instruments and excels in
all. While in session, he would start with saxophone, switch
to clarinet, trumpet and sometimes trombone.
“Not so many musicians could switch from woodwind
to brass, since they require different techniques and skills.
The woodwinds use reeds to make sound, while a brass instrument
such as a trumpet doesn’t. Brass instruments use
the lips in place of the reeds. The only famous jazz musician
who is adroit in both instruments that I know of is the
late Benny Carter,” he elaborates.
IMPROVISING WITH IDOLS
Over several decades, the King’s Au Sau Wan Suk Band
has received such international jazz idols as 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
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.
His Majesty’s first encounter with an international jazz
idol occurred in 1960 during his state visit to the United
States. His two jam sessions with Benny Goodman in New
York were reported in Time in its June 18, 1960, edition:
“His Majesty went to dinner with the King of Swing, Benny
Goodman, (and 94 others) at the suburban estate of New
York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller…. For 90 minutes after
dinner, King Bhumibol and Benny led a foot-stomping,
starch-melting jam session. Next day, the King toted a sax
up to the 22nd story roof garden above Benny’s Manhattan
House apartment for the fulfillment of a jazzman’s dream....
The King stood them toe-to-toe for two hours, paid his
royal respects to The Shiek of Araby (in 17 eardrumming
choruses), savoured Honeysuckle Rose, swung low On the
Sunny Side of the Street….”
In the article “The King of Jazz,” by Harry Rolnick, published
in Sawasdee magazine in 1987, American singer
Patti Page described her audience with the King: “It was
like a dream come true. I had heard about his compositions,
but only when I had them in my hands did I see how
fine they were....”
“For two hours,” Rolnick reported, “she sang the works
of His Majesty, with her personal accompanist, while the
King made changes when necessary.
The late jazz icon Lionel Hampton was also quoted in
the same article as saying: “He is simply the coolest king in
Recently, the world of jazz has literally recognized the King
by putting his name in one of the recent editions of the Encyclopedia
of Jazz that came out some four years ago, his
close aide says: “If you flip to the B index, you will find his
name and a short description of his works. He is the only
Thai musician to earn such an honour.”
Back in 1964, he recalls, when HM the King visited Vienna,
Austria, for a state visit, he attended a concert where
five of his finest pieces, Kinari Suite, Sai Fon, Yam Yen, the
Royal Marines March and the Royal Guards March, were performed.
Not only was the audience in the concert hall appreciative
of HM the King’s compositions but also music
lovers across Austria, as the concert was broadcast live on
After the concert, His Majesty received overwhelming
accolades with a long standing ovation as the composer. Two
days after the concert, he was conferred with the 23rd honourary
membership of the world-renowned Die Akademic
fur Musik und Darstellende Kunst (The Institute of
Music and Arts of the city of Vienna). He was the first Asian
composer to receive such an honour.
FROM CLASSICS TO JAZZ
As a school boy in Switzerland, His Majesty received
early training in classical music. But saxophone lessons,
which later became HM the King’s most favourite instrument,
occurred by chance. In the book, Chaonai Lek Lek,
Yuwa Kasat, by HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, the Princess
recalled that it was King Ananda who bought a secondhand
saxophone for 300 Swiss Francs and intended to take
lessons. At the last minute, he changed his mind and sent
his younger brother, Prince Bhumibol to the class in his
Eventually, King Ananda joined the class with his clarinet.
The one-hour, twice-weekly classes with Alsace musician
Mr Weybrecht were split into two half-hour classes to
accommodate King Ananda on clarinet. For two years the
classes continued and often ended with an hour-long trio
session with Mr Weybrecht and King Ananda on clarinet and
Prince Bhumibol on saxophone.
Despite their classical music training, both King Ananda
and Prince Bhumibol were more inspired by the exciting
beats of blues and jazz, containing rousing rhythms and
freedom of expression. The teenage royals started collecting
gramophone recordings of jazz icons with King Ananda
preferring Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet,
Blowing his trumpet over Rangsit Canal in Ayudhaya.
while Prince Bhumibol opted for Duke Ellington and Count
Basie. King Bhumibol practiced his instruments to the
strains of blues and jazz from these recordings. He played
along with recordings of Sidney Bechet’s soprano saxophone,
Johny Hodges’ alto saxophone and Duke Ellington’s
His Majesty’s favourite instruments are the saxophone,
clarinet and trumpet. He also plays guitar and piano.
AN ASPIRING COMPOSER
|Selecting music for his Au Sau Radio audience in the mid-1950s.
It was during 1946, when the then18-year-old Prince
Bhumibol visited Bangkok, accompanying King Ananda,
that his potential in music writing was taken seriously.
Encouraged by King Ananda, the aspiring prince started
composing where his heart was — the blues. He wrote
fragments of scores and showed them to HH Prince Chakrabandhu
Bensiri Chakrabandhu, himself a musician, who,
in turn, asked the young prince to complete the compositions
and offered help with lyric composition.
In April 1946, his first composition was accomplished.
It was named Saeng Tien (Candlelight Blues). Soon afterwards,
his second composition, Yam Yen (Love at Sundown),
rolled out, again with the help of Prince Chakrabandhu
on the lyrics. By the time Prince Bhumibol tried
his third piece, he smoothed the scores out almost effortlessly
within a single day. Sai Fon(Falling Rain) was its name.
Over a span of five decades, the King has created 48
musical numbers. Out of them, five include lyrics and
melody by the King himself: Echo, Still on My Mind, Old-
Fashioned Melody, No Moon and Dream Island. Two of his
compositions were created from lyrics about patriotism:
Kwan Fun An Soong Sud (1971) and Rao Su (1976).
Having excellent ears for music and a quick wit, HM
the King is admired for his ability to compose a song on
the spur of the moment, without any assistance of a musical
instrument. “Sometimes, we got music scores on a
piece of scrap paper or an envelope with bars and notes
on it. When the King was inspired, he would write the
melody out of what he heard in his head. Later on, the
melody would then be completed with a piano,” the close
How His Majesty composed the song Rak (Love, 1995)
was quite extraordinary, he adds. His Majesty blew his sax
while reciting the lyrics. His close aide would write down
the notes from what he blew. After finishing, he asked for
the rough notes to be completed, after which the arrangement
Alexandra, a song to welcome Princess Alexandra, was
written in a similar prompt fashion, upon the visit of the
princess in 1959. In “The King of Jazz,” the late former
prime minister and musician MR Seni Pramoj recalled the
princess's visit: “I remember when we were waiting for
Princess Alexandra to arrive. About 20 minutes before the
plane landed, His Majesty came over to me with a sheet of
music. He had written a welcoming song for Princess
Alexandra — and he expected me to write a poem to go
with the music! Of course with royal command like that, I
had no choice but to write it.”
In similar impromptu fashion, Porn Phi Mai (New
Year’s Greeting) was swiftly composed on New Year’s Eve,
1951. Wishing to bless his subjects with a
song, His Majesty together with Prince
Chakrabandhu took turns to alternately
compose the melody with a saxophone until
its completion that evening. The song became
an instant hit and has been played
during New Year celebrations for over 50
THE KING’S BANDS
From his early trio sessions in his Alsace
teacher’s studio in Switzerland, both King
Ananda and the then Prince Bhumibol often
took pleasure in musical companionship.
During their visit to Thailand in 1946, King
Ananda and Prince Bhumibol invited some
amateur musicians for casual weekend sessions.
After King Bhumibol ascended the throne
and subsequently returned to Switzerland,
he continued the pastime by inviting Thai
students to join music gatherings both in
Switzerland and in Paris.
Upon his return to Thailand for a permanent
stay in 1950, he initiated a jazz band
and named it “Lai Khram.” The band members
included M.L. Vimvathit Rabibadhana,
M.C. Waewchakra Chakrabandhu, M.L. Dej
Snidvongse, M.C. Kamolsarn Jumbala, M.C.
Chumpokbutr Jumbala, M.L. Udom Snidvongse,
M.R. Pong-amorn Kridakara, M.R.
Seni Pramoj, Surathern Bunnag and M.L.
Praphand Snidvongse. The band’s regular
singers included M.C. Murathapisek Sonakul
and M.C. Kajornchobkitikuna Kitiyakara.
In 1952, His Majesty established a radio
station within the Amporn Satharn Palace
and named it after the initials of the palace
as “Au Sau Amporn Satharn Radio Station.”
Through broadcasting, the dynamic Lai
Khram band thrilled its radio audiences with vibrant selections
of jazz numbers. It performed along with several
bands including the Kaset band under the supervision of
HH Prince Chakrabandhu Bensiri Chakrabandhu.
Eventually the Lai Khram band members grew in number.
To accommodate them all, His Majesty expanded the
band and called it Au Sau Wan Suk (Friday Au Sau). A special
characteristic of the band was that His Majesty would
join in on its live broadcasts every Friday evening. His
Majesty would select music as well as recordings for the
programme and encouraged call-in requests. Occasionally,
it was His Majesty himself who personally took the calls.
On weekends, the band members would convene at
Klai Kangwol Palace for private musical sessions with the
King. The fun-filled event sometimes lasted till sunrise as
band members marched down the beach with their instruments
in the crisp morning breeze to greet the day
with their jazz.
Past and present members of the band have included
M.R. Seni Pramoj, M.L. Praphand Snidvongse, Uthis Dinakara
na Ayudhaya, M.L. Seri Pramoj, M.L. Usni Pramoj,
Manrat Srikranond, Dej Thiewthong, Thavorn Yaovakhan,
Suvit Ungsavanond, Nondha Buranasomphop, Kavee Angsawanond,
Apichitr Sukchand, Uab Hemaratchata, Santhad
Tanthanand, Aniruth Thinnakorn na Ayudhaya and
Dr Phathorn Srikranond. Singers have included Khunying
Savitri Srivisarnvaja, Khunying Chamari Snidvongse na
Ayudhaya, Khun Kanda Thammamongkhol, Thanpuying
Suvaree Dhepakam and Pallop Suwannamalik.
During the early period of its establishment, the band
ventured beyond the radio station and palace boundaries
into the public, especially in universities. Apart from playing
music for generations of university students, His
Majesty also composed alma maters for Chulalongkorn,
Thammasat and Kasetsart universities.
Eventually, the Au Sau Wan Suk band gradually faded
out of public performance owing to His Majesty’s increasing
engagements in rural development projects.
But the band’s jazz spirit is still alive and well.
“Our band is still going strong playing regularly with
the King,” says Rear Admiral ML Usni Pramoj, a privy
councilor and band member. “His Majesty’s arduous tasks
have been so overwhelming that we wish the music would
help in releasing his stress. For everyone has to have a way
to relax. And music is one of the best. We are so honoured
to have the chance to serve him.”
Not only did His Majesty become an inspiration for
professional musicians, but a mentor for those amateurs
working in different fields. In 1986 His Majesty gathered
those working with him in several rural development projects,
including agriculturists, volunteer doctors, court of-
ficials, aides and security officers to form a brass band, naming
it “Sahai Pattana” (Development Friends). Instead of
exercising as routinely scheduled, His Majesty sacrificed
his evening hours to train the brass band members, with
Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn first
on the list.
A maestro in his own right, the septuagenarian King
has been lauded for his role not only as a great king but
also a great musician. His splendid music legacy has left
its mark on numerous albums both locally and internationally.
“Jack Teagarden asked royal permission to include a royal
composition on his album. So did the Les Brown Big Band,
which asked for six compositions, as well as the Claude
Bolling Big Band from France and Ted Peace,” says his
Already, a committee has been set up to screen requests
for public performance and recordings of the King’s compositions.
“In the past, there were those who inadvertently
adapted or changed the King’s compositions, which is inappropriate,”
says the musician. “They should respect
that anyone who composes does not wish to have their
pieces rewritten. The committee, therefore, is set to screen
and approve requests.”
Although the King’s latest composition, his 48th, called
Menu Kai (Egg Menu) came out in 1995, he believes that
it would not be the last. “I think the King is still working
on his compositions. And more will be coming out to the
By Hua Hin beach on Saturday nights, the indomitable
music maestro still serenades his modest audience. The
strains of his sax have “echoed” throughout the country,
entertaining millions of his subjects, from the past to the
present, who have heard and appreciated their King’s
compassion through his music.
As one of his English-language compositions, Echo, goes:
“…Of it is nothing left
But the echo
Though time is unforgiving
Our love will