Thursday 18 July 2019

John Wadham

Grainne Farren

JOHN WADHAM, who died on September 22 in Dun Laoghaire, was Ireland's greatest drummer. Gerald Davis's sleeve-note on the CD Drums and Friends describes his 'rare combination of technical accomplishment, impeccable taste and flawless time', while fellow-drummer Jack Daly once summed him up in a single word: 'perfect'.

Originally from Croydon, England, John studied piano before switching to drums at the age of 11. He moved to Ireland with his parents in the 1950s, and created a sensation when he sat in with the Rock Fox Band one night in Dublin. The startled musicians realised immediately that this 16-year-old blond youth was something special. Even then there wasn't a drummer in the country who came anywhere near him.

John studied engineering at Trinity College, but he opted for the precarious, though rewarding, life of a full-time musician. Over the years his walrus moustache, pipe and look of amiable relaxation became a familiar part of Dublin's musical landscape. In more recent times he added the slightly incongruous touch of a baseball cap - not usually the most flattering headgear for adults, but the Wad, as he was affectionately known, could get away with it.

Together with pianist Jim Doherty and bass-player Dave Fleming he made up the Jim Doherty Trio, which was frequently called upon to accompany visiting American jazz stars like Spike Robinson, Kenny Davern, James Williams and Scott Hamilton. Among the many who were highly impressed was alto-player Charles McPherson whose speed-of-light version of Cherokee was a test for any rhythm section. The Wad took it in his stride, played one of his rare drum solos and went on looking unruffled.

John Wadham went on four tours of Europe with the Great Guitars: Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd. He played in the US and Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Spain and Portugal.

He was the foremost drum teacher in the country, and pupils who went on to enjoy fame in their own right include Conor Guilfoyle and Stephen Keogh. For about nine years he had a weekly record programme on RTE Radio 1, which allowed him to share his passion for big bands.

CDs he recorded include Drums and Friends under his own leadership, One Man in his Time with Spike Robinson, In Arrears with Richie Buckley, Anda with Tommy Halferty and Michael Buckley, and Spirit Level with Hugh Buckley.

Last May a whole host of Irish musicians, together with special guest Georgie Fame, got together in Fitzpatricks Castle, Killiney, to put on a testimonial gig in honour of John Wadham. The event drew a large audience and was a great success.

Now, with the Cork Jazz Festival less than a month away, it's hard to imagine that it will take place without the drummer who, in past festivals, backed the world-famous Benny Carter, Terry Gibbs, Buddy de Franco, Harold Land, Harry 'Sweets' Edison and Art Farmer.

The huge turn-out at his funeral in Glenageary confirmed how much he was loved and admired, not only by fellow musicians, pupils and jazz fans, but by a whole circle of friends who knew this unique individual as a Scrabble-player, crossword fan and bird-watcher.

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