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Foggy could have been great - No known recordings of late politician, musician leads to bigger loss

Published:Sunday | October 20, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Seymour 'Foggy' Mullings

Herbie Miller, Contributor

Seymour 'Foggy' Mullings was first and foremost a politician. For those who knew him, People's National Party (PNP) and Jamaica Labour Party included, he is remembered not only as someone wholly devoid of spite or resentment but also, as described to the Gleaner's Gary Spaulding, by his friend, Burchell Whiteman, as a professional and well-known jazz musician with a large measure of versatility.

His music reflected his "temperament, understated, calming and reflective personality", Whiteman mused.

There was this certain elegance to his touch that was also quite noticeable in his demeanour. Neither in his playing nor his personality did this sophistication resemble the sort of pretentious mannerism associated with those who adopted such attitudes because they thought it increased social mobility and status.

Rather, I suspect Mullings' qualities were associated with one who had remained true to the family ethics, social values and spiritual qualities of late rural lifestyle that produced and nurtured him.

In that regard, former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson considered him a man for all seasons who walked with kings but kept the common touch.

In other words, Foggy Mullings was not just an exceptional musician, but also a man with a distinguishing personality infused into his music.

As a politician, Seymour Mullings served in many high-profile capacities. He was a senior officer in the PNP, a member of parliament, appointed minister in various portfolios, and after retiring from politics he joined the diplomatic community as ambassador to Jamaica in Washington, DC. In these capacities, he most certainly walked with kings, and indeed queens and other prominent world leaders and personalities.

If we consider Wilton "Bra" Gaynair, Harold 'Little G' McNair and Don Drummond kings among Jamaican musicians, then Foggy also stood with kings on the stage.

Taddy Mowatt's 14-year-old vibraphone student, Marjorie Whylie, with an interest in jazz, encountered Foggy Mullings at Champion House during the 1950s. She riffs on that experience: "Everyone played at Champion House; 'Little G' McNair, Sonny Bradshaw, Lenny (Hibbert), (Ernie) Ranglin, Don Drummond, everyone. Even at that young age I detected in Foggy's playing a George Sharing feel. His solos moved in blocks of chords, between both hands, and when he soloed with the right hand and held chords with the left, there was no doubt he was Jamaican by the way the melody flowed with a nuanced lilt. He was very influential to my development in that direction".

Foggy Mullings also played in the Wilton Gaynair All-Star band at the Bournemouth Club during the late 1940s.

In adding a chorus of her own, guitarist Janet Enright recalled the line-up. "Wilton on tenor saxophone, Raymond Harper, trumpet, Foggy was on piano, Cluet Johnson was the bassist and Donald Jarrett, the drummer. I remember when members of the band soloed, they were all dynamic. We were all into dynamics; Wilton, Don (Drummond), Raymond Harper and little me, but when it was Foggy's turn, he just swayed the people and the musicians. Everyone forgot dynamics. A soft aura just flowed over everyone and stilled them. There was nothing foggy about his music, it was angelic. He was much like Errol Garner; playing from the heart to the world, to every musician, everybody loved him. Sometimes when he was finished soloing, Wilton would go over and rest his hands on his shoulder; there was nothing to be said. He was too modest to handle compliments; he would politely change the subject and segue into something else. He was that soulful".

Describing Mullings' ballad playing as "powerfully gentle", Enright counted among his favorite features The Way You Look Tonight, Full Moon and Empty Arms, which also featured Don, and Polka Dots and Moonbeams.

During the 1960s, and for some time after, I occasionally encountered Foggy Mullings at jazz sessions. That he was the musician's musician was evidenced by the way other pianists would volunteer the bench and join the audience whenever he made a rare and mostly unannounced appearance at the Tit for Tat Club, Andante, Hotel Kingston, the Surrey Tavern or later on at the Blue Monk Jazz Gallery or the Mutual Life basement. At these sessions, I have seen and heard Foggy play with such effortless confidence on velocity charged numbers that were so swinging it elicited from musician and audience ecstatic applause, spontaneous finger snapping, foot tapping, and head nodding.

Unlike many other jazz musicians of his time, Mullings avoided crowd-pleasing roulades; instea opting for nuanced fluidity to produce inventive interpretations of the song's melody. He infected these up-tempo tunes with splendidly cogent notes that were not only logical, but also superbly intuitive. His compelling harmonies and refined imagination turned well-known tunes into renditions that obscured their identity.

Foggy was no ordinary musician, as can be heard on a half dozen tunes I recorded from my radio some three decades ago. On each song, his sense of time and measure, his beat, remained consistently intelligent and intuitively compelling.

Mullings' approach to slow tunes is just as engaging; his ballad playing exhibits relaxing lyricism, stable pulse and subtle melodic lines that are at once thrillingly elevating and intimately evocative.

Sensitively introspective harmonies also reflect his characteristic distinguished aura and gracefully illuminate his apparent affection for romantic standards.

On Walter Gross and Jack Lawrence's Tenderly, for example, he seems to linger on the introduction, interpreting and reinterpreting it in multiple ways — if for no other reason than its utterly delightful tunefulness before exploring harmonic possibilities that seamlessly transform and personalise this well-known romantic song made popular by Nat King Cole.

Foggy's interpretation of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's standard, The Sound of Music, benefits from a lucid empathic reading.

Foggy never departs far from the melody, but by faintly addressing its structure he added a tropical light to the song's western European pastel hue, providing a sunny and yet cool fusion while maintaining its sense of liberation and optimism.

Mullings' playing betrays his musical influences. The piano styling of Nat Cole, Errol Garner and Teddy Wilson flow from his fingers. Like fellow pianists Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, he inflected infectious humour to sessions without sacrificing the cogent intensity of improvisation.

Utterly lacking a profligate attitude, for those who served with him in Parliament, Foggy was someone whose strong but understated personality was also reflected in his music; a music that portrayed the politician and musician as both statesman and gentleman, one so confident in his abilities that political audacity, personal bravado and musical showboating had no place in how he expressed himself.

While listening to my private recording, the late Harry Graham, on introducing the Leo Wilson Quartet, described its featured artiste, Foggy Mullings, as "one of the best pianists this country has so far produced".

While there is ephemera attesting to his musical presence, it's the nation's loss that there is no known professional recording of Seymour 'Foggy' Mullings, the outstanding pianist. Although a politician of impeccable qualities, to those who encountered Foggy, the musician, it was clear he obviously took great joy in the vocation he did not pursue.