A clarinet fit for a king
Long-distance friendships have always been hard to maintain, especially before the advent of the internet, cellphones and Facetime.
But for Jim Beatty of West Linn and King Simeon II of Bulgaria, a 6,000-mile gap across a continent and the Atlantic Ocean couldn't spoil the relationship the two had kindled during a week-long stint at a resort in the Bahamas.
It's there that the two men became close friends, and it's that relationship that led Beatty and his two sons, Jame and Bob, to Bulgaria last month, where he played clarinet for Simeon at a celebration of the former monarch's 80th birthday.
It all started in December 1962, when Beatty's band — the Wolverine Jazz Band — was asked to play a residency at the Emerald Beach Hotel in Nassau. Fresh out of the Army, where he had studied at the Army School of Music, Beatty's chops were as good as any woodwind player of the time.
Growing up in Jamestown, N.Y., Beatty was exposed to truly legendary jazz musicians of the time. As he grew into the music profession, he rubbed elbows and played with some of jazz's most influential characters, such as William "Wild Bill" Davison, Eddie Condon and Pee Wee Russell.
Simeon and his recently betrothed Queen Margarita of Spain were enjoying their honeymoon in the Bahamas when they met Beatty. At the time, Simeon was living in exile in Spain after communist rule pushed Simeon, his mother and sister out of their home at Vrana Palace near the capital of Sofia. He later returned to Bulgaria following the fall of the Berlin Wall to reassume the crown and eventually serve as Bulgarian prime minister from 2001 to 2005.
After hearing a couple of Beatty's performances at the Emerald Beach Hotel, the couple invited the young clarinetist to their table to share a drink and some stimulating conversation.
"They were incognito. Nobody knew who they were," Beatty says. "I only knew because I worked at the hotel and some of the employees knew."
Once they had talked and become comfortable with Beatty, the royal couple — who, like Beatty, were in their early 20s — told the musician who they were. For the next week, Beatty took it upon himself to show the newlyweds a good time.
After he'd get done playing around 11 p.m or midnight, they'd all head out to find the after-hours parties where musicians and other service employees of the various hotels and resorts would let loose. It was a week Beatty says he'll never forget, and after the couple left the Bahamas, the two men stayed in touch.
"We kept in contact by mail, and every time I made a new record, I'd send it to him. We'd write back and forth," Beatty says.
Time went on, and Beatty enjoyed an impressive career as a jazz clarinetist. But after touring the United States for a few years, he decided to settle down with his wife Pauline, who, coincidentally, he'd also met while playing at the Emerald Beach Hotel in Nassau. The two moved back to his native Jamestown, where sons Jame and Bob were both born, and then moved to Portland in 1967.
As nightclubs became less and less prominent throughout the U.S. in the 1980s, Beatty began touring overseas, mostly in European countries like England, Wales, Germany and the Netherlands. He visited Asia on a couple of occasions, including a trip to China, and played parts of the Soviet Union as well. Today, he describes himself as "semi-retired."
Earlier this year, Beatty received an invitation to Simeon's 80th birthday celebration at Vrana Palace, just outside the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. He accepted the invitation, and last month he and his sons traveled to Bulgaria to help his lifelong friend celebrate.
When the Beattys arrived in Bulgaria, they were astounded to find they were in the small minority of attendees who didn't have a royal title.
"I had no idea he was going to include us in this royal circle," Beatty chuckles. "When I saw him again, it was like we picked up where we left off 55 years ago."
Royalty in attendance at Simeon's birthday celebration included Crown Prince Alexander and Princess Catherine of Serbia, Queen Sofia of Spain, King Constantine of Greece, Crown Princess Margarita and Prince Radu of Serbia, Prince Nikola of Montenegro, Prince Andrius and Princess Sachs-Goldberg of Germany and Prince Leka and Princess Elia of Albania, to name a few.
The day began with a church service in Simeon's honor, followed by a tour of the national museum before a five-course lunch was served on the top of a hotel in Sofia. Later that evening, 350 guests descended on Vrana Palace for a grand party.
Despite being some of the only non-royalty at the gathering, Beatty says he didn't feel out of place.
"Oddly enough, I just felt right at home. They were all so nice. It was just like being at a party in West Linn, except it was held in a palace," Beatty says.
As the night wore on, the masses said their goodbyes to Simeon and were ushered off the palace grounds. A small group of people remained behind for a private after-party hosted in the palace's throne room, where Beatty would play his clarinet for his old friend, who hadn't heard him play in person since 1962.
"It was huge. We had a last dinner that night when I played in the throneroom," Beatty says. "They set tables up for everyone and I played right in front of the throne."
Beatty played three tunes: first the traditional "Happy Birthday" song; then an Acker Bilk song called "Stranger on the Shore," which was a throwback to Beatty's 1962 residency in Nassau; and finally "Petite Fleur" by Sidney Bechet.
Beatty was surprised to learn that Simeon had actually shared his records with his close friends, many of whom were in attendance at the private after-party. That made the moment that much more special, he says.
"I was very impressed that after all those years, he hadn't forgotten me," Beatty says. "Obviously he considered me a friend, and I guess an important one, to include me and my sons in their royal circle."
Beatty is currently in the process of writing a memoir detailing his life's story. Last month's trip to Bulgaria and his performance celebrating King Simeon's 80th birthday will serve as the epilogue, he says, capping a lifetime of musical achievement for the jazz master of West Linn.