Drummer who made incalculable impact on Irish jazz

 

'So many drummers, so little time," said the framed legend in John Wadham's old house in Dalkey, where he spent most of his adult life. This week, to the great sadness of his many colleagues, friends and acquaintances, time ran out for the doyen of drummers on the Irish jazz scene, known affectionately among musicians as "The Wad".

To many it will seem like the end of an era. For the past half-century, he taught and inspired several generations of Irish jazz musicians - not all of them drummers. Generous with his time, experience, skill and knowledge, he made his insight and enthusiasm available to anyone who shared his passion for the music that was his deepest relationship throughout his 67 years.

His impact on Irish jazz is incalculable. From the young Louis Stewart, for decades now a world-class guitarist, through the now senior generation represented by such as pianists Jim Doherty and Noel Kelehan, to later players like the renowned composer, arranger, teacher and bass guitarist, Ronan Guilfoyle - whose brother, Conor is among several distinguished drummers he taught - he left his mark in one way or another.

At the start of the 1950s and the near-legendary status of the long-vanished Green Lounge in Grafton Street, aficionados gathered to share in the arcane rites of jazz. In effect they were an underworld elite which anyone could join; all that was asked was that the members were hip to the music and behaved themselves.

When The Wad first appeared there, however, he was like someone from another planet or, more accurately, the Home Counties - he was born in Croydon in 1936. Noeleen Garber, who frequented the lounge then, remembers "this teenaged apparition with the blazer and the Viyella shirt, toffee accent and all", who asked the musicians jamming there if he could play with them.

"What would you know about jazz?" asked one derisively. He soon found out. As Jim Doherty put it: "There were some good drummers and bad drummers here and then along comes the jazz equivalent of Tiger Woods in golf and raises the whole game to another level altogether." There was no doubting his skill or authority. "John didn't sit at the drum kit," said a colleague. "He presided over it."

Extraordinarily, he was entirely self-taught. Whatever his solidly middle-class very English parents felt about his interest, they didn't discourage it. His father, Cyril, a former RAF man, transferred to Dublin in 1953, where he was head of the an insurance company. His mother, Muriel, was a pianist who, seasoned professionals said, could sight-read anything. Their only child started in Trinity College Dublin as an engineering student. He never finished the course. Instead, he and Noel Kelehan joined the band of Jack Flahive, playing in the cavernous Olympic Ballroom off Camden Street.

Behind the drums he was the epitome of handsome self-assurance, almost arrogance. A young Brian Dunning, now a gifted flautist who straddles the worlds of traditional Irish music and jazz, thought of him as "Mr Cool" when he first saw him on television.

For The Wad there followed a lifelong career as a freelance musician, much of it in jazz. He played in various big bands organised by Jim Doherty and Noel Kelehan, and in Jim Doherty's late 60s trio in the Intercontinental Hotel. In 1968 he went to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Jim Doherty's group; the quartet - Jim (organ), John Curran (tenor), Louis Stewart (guitar) and The Wad - created quite a stir and Louis came home with a best soloist award.

Wadham undoubtedly could have launched his career internationally, but he had settled and found a contentment here that seemed to suit a man who oozed amiability wherever he went. Not that he lacked musical company to stretch him. Apart from the best of the local musicians, he was first call for any visiting soloists, among them the finest ever to grace jazz.

The names read like a jazz equivalent of Debrett's Peerage; Benny Carter, the great altoist who died just a few weeks ago, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, trumpeters Art Farmer and Joe Newman, tenors Zoot Sims and Spike Robinson - think of a name and the chances are The Wad presided over the drum kit for him.

He even played under the baton of composer/arranger Elmer Bernstein.

There were European tours backing the Great Guitars package of Barney Kessel, Charlie Byrd and Herb Ellis. Soprano saxophonist and clarinettist Bob Wilber, a virtuoso whose style was rooted in jazz of the 1920s, also hired him, underlining a truth about his love of jazz.

He was as much at home with early 1920s traditional jazz as he was with the bop and post-bop revolutions of the 40s, 50s and 60s, something which helped when, for eight years, he presented his own jazz programme on national radio. He made it his business to familiarise himself with what went on after that, even though it wasn't his weapon of choice. But he knew what each style demanded of the drummer and could do it with aplomb.

Over the years, although the toffee accent never changed much, his appearance metamorphosed into an ineffably English gent, slightly raffish, with muttonchop whiskers and a pipe. It was matched by pastimes which somehow seemed equally British - trainspotting, birdwatching, butterfly-collecting - and a family habit of returning for the same two weeks holiday every year to the same place: Dymchurch in Kent. After his parents died, that became a thing of the past, too.

If that makes him sound like what is now called an anorak, then those who knew him scarcely felt that way about him. He was a very private person; there was a point beyond which nobody was allowed. But he was such good company, a fund of jokes and musicians' insider stories, that it was invariably a pleasure to meet him if you shared any of his interests, which, by the way, also included Scrabble and crosswords, the Goon Show and Dad's Army; he had an almost complete collection of tapes of both.

He also had a treasure house of tapes when he was part of a group backing would-be singers auditioning for talent shows, hilarious examples of people's limitless ability to delude themselves. There were gems like send-ups of radio and television advertisements, done to fill in dead spots in the studio, or the time that Bing Crosby forgot the words of a song he was recording and sang, perfectly in tune: "I've forgotten the f.....g words of the song and I don't know what the f..k comes next."

Ultimately, it all came down to jazz and for a musician so accomplished, his recorded legacy is undeservedly slim. He did play on Louis Stewart's debut as leader, Louis The First, for Gerald Davis's Livia Records, and Davis was also responsible for the only album The Wad ever made as leader - Drums and Friends, now reissued on Livia CD.

There were a few others, among them an album, One Man In His Time, which Jim Doherty organised featuring Spike Robinson, bassist Dave Fleming, The Wad and Jim, and an LP, Ozone, made by Noel Kelehan, with Mike Nolan (trumpet), Keith Donald (saxophone), Kelehan, bassist Frank Hess and The Wad. The quintet also played two weeks at Ronnie Scott's in London, opposite tenor Johnny Griffin, in the "Sense Of Ireland" arts festival there.

His final recording is guitarist Hugh Buckley's Spirit Level, made a year or so ago in New York with a quartet completed by the American pianist James Williams and Dave Fleming.

There should have been more and more years of life for him. It wasn't to be, but earlier this year a group of friends and colleagues, including tenor Richie Buckley and The Wad's closest friend, multi-instrumentalist Charles Meredith, were involved in a tribute to him which was a spectacular demonstration of the widespread respect and affection with which he was held. And just as we are the richer to have known him, we are the poorer for his passing.