Wadham, John Barker (1936–2003), musician, was born in Croydon, Surrey, England, only son of Cyril Wadham, an insurance broker, and his wife Muriel, a talented amateur pianist. The family moved to Ireland in 1953 when Cyril Wadham, an RAF veteran, was transferred to Dublin, where he became manager of the Royal Irish Liver Insurance Company; they resided in Dalkey, Co. Dublin. Self‑taught in music, the teenaged Wadham immediately made a name for himself as a drummer in Dublin's small but zealous jazz scene, approaching the musicians in such venues as the Green Lounge on St Stephen's Green – the city's foremost location at the time for contemporary jazz – and asking if he could jam with them. Hornman Rock Fox (Chas Meredith) – who became Wadham's closest friend – recounted being approached during a gig in the Bective Inn in Donnybrook by a 'beautiful, not un‑buxom lady' who asked whether her son could sit in on the drums: 'within sixteen bars the face of percussion in Ireland changed forever' (Sunday Independent, 13 December 2009).
Wadham studied engineering at TCD (1956–1958/9) but did not finish the course. By the early 1960s he was rated among Ireland's leading jazz drummers. A full‑time professional musician, he was remarkably versatile and eclectic in his approach to style and material, performing with nearly any type of jazz combination: large, medium, or small, traditional, swing, mainstream, bop, post‑bop, and various modern idioms. With a firm understanding of what each style required of the drummer, he was ever sensitive to the demands of the group and of the individual soloist.
For over forty years, Wadham played in every Irish jazz group of distinction, and was constantly in demand as a session musician. After a period in the Jack Flahive Orchestra, based in the Olympic Ballroom off Camden Street, in the early 1960s he played in small groups fronted by pianist Ian Henry (a TCD medical student), performing high energy, modern, bop‑influenced jazz; he appeared regularly on Telefís Éireann in a trio with Henry and bassist Martin Walsh. After Henry's departure to general medical practice in London, Wadham played in the Jazz Heralds (who opened for Earl 'Fatha' Hines in a St Patrick's night concert in the Mansion House (1966)), and subsequent groups led by pianist Noel Kelehan. He was part of the Jim Doherty Quartet, which won the press jury's prix d'honneur at the second Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland (1968); the quartet's brilliant young guitarist, Louis Stewart (b. 1944), was named outstanding European soloist. At the 1969 Montreux festival Wadham played in the Ian Henry Quartet with Stewart and Walsh (described as the best possible selection for a modern jazz combo that Ireland could make), at which Stewart was co‑winner of the grand prix of Radio Suisse Romande. For the rest of Wadham's career, he and Stewart – perhaps Ireland's two foremost jazz talents – played together frequently in various lineups. On Stewart's debut album as leader, Louis the first (1976), Wadham and Walsh provided backing on several tracks, including 'All the things you are', on which the former's drumming 'supports, complements, and urges the guitar through a most assured solo' (Ray Comiskey, Ir. Times, 26 March 1976).
In the 1960s the Irish Times jazz critic, George Hodnett, described Wadham's as essentially a big‑band style of drumming, largely adaptable to small groups, but a shade heavy at times in soft material; by the late 1970s he was praising Wadham's subtlety in light percussion. In the early 1970s Wadham appeared in several big bands, including the Noel Kelehan Orchestra, the Butler–Fox Jazz Band, and the Jim Doherty Big Band; in the late 1970s he often appeared with Rock Fox and His Famous Orchestra, performing big‑band swing in the style of Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. He played with such visiting international artists as Maynard Ferguson, Tubby Hayes, and Ronnie Scott. He was in the backing bands in a production of the stage show 'Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris' in the Shelbourne Hotel (1975), and (under the leadership of Professor Peter O'Brien (qv)) in the satirical stage revue 'Wagtime', featuring actors Des Keogh and Rosaleen Linehan (1977). He was drummer in the ten‑piece electrified jazz‑rock band Spon (1975–7), led by Jim Doherty on electric piano, and including Stewart, Mike Nolan (trumpet), Brian Dunning (flute), and Keith Donald (saxophones); the band's influences included Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Chuck Mangione.
Wadham's only recording as a leader was Drums & friends (1978), on which the highlights were two duets with Stewart: a moody 'Lazy afternoon', and an extraordinary, free 'Improvisation for guitar and drums'. He fronted his own John Wadham Percussion Ensemble, and played post‑bop jazz in the Noel Kelehan Quintet, with Nolan, Donald, and bassist Frank Hess, which held residencies in the late 1970s in the Killiney Court Hotel, and recorded a well‑received album, Ozone (1980). Over a decade later the combination re‑formed under the name Ozone (1992–5), playing a post‑bop repertoire drawn from Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Herbie Hancock; during their lengthy residency at J. J. Smyth's of Aungier Street, Dublin, Martin Curry eventually replaced Hess on bass, and Myles Drennan replaced Kelehan on keyboards.
The 1980s saw Wadham performing in the Tommy Halferty Trio, with the leader on guitar and Ronan Guilfoyle on electric bass (1980–81); the Tony Scott Jazz Band (1984–5), which represented Ireland in the Sacramento Jubilee Dixieland Jazz Festival in the USA (1985); and Pastoria (1985), a modern jazz combination with Latin American inflections, featuring the exotic vocals of Ellen Demos. In the late 1980s he formed an enduring association with pianist Jim Doherty and bassist Dave Fleming; usually billed as the Jim Doherty Trio, they performed both as an independent combo, and as a highly adept rhythm section which for some fifteen years provided assured, adaptable, and empathetic accompaniment to a legion of Irish and international jazz artists, especially in the mainstream idiom. Wadham also played mainstream jazz in Isotope (1999–2002), a band fronted by guitarist Hugh Buckley, which enjoyed a lengthy residency in J. J. Smyth's; the varying lineups included Drennan, Fleming, bassist Michael Coady, and saxophonist Richie Buckley. Wadham played on Richie Buckley's album In arrears (1997), and joined Fleming and American pianist James Williams as the accompanying musicians on Hugh Buckley's album Spirit level (2001).
Other Irish‑based artists with whom Wadham performed included jazz violinist Leif Reck, guitarist Mike Nielsen, and singers Freddie White, Honor Heffernan, and Bob Whelan. He was the drummer of choice to accompany leading jazz artists visiting Ireland from abroad. He had a particularly close musical relationship with the lyrical US mainstream tenor saxophonist Spike Robinson, whom he backed many times; as part of the Jim Doherty Trio, he provided backing on Robinson's Dublin‑recorded album, One man in his time (1991). Wadham toured Ireland, Britain, and Europe as part of the Great Guitars show (mid 1980s), featuring the American artists Herb Ellis, Charlie Byrd, and Barney Kessel, and backed Kessel – whom he described as the 'father of modern jazz guitar' (Ir. Times, 22 February 1988) – on his subsequent Irish shows. Other distinguished artists with whom he performed included saxophonists Zoot Sims, Teddy Edwards, Ken Peplowski, Harold Land, Mornington Lockett, Charles McPherson, and Scott Hamilton; trumpeters Art Farmer, Sweets Edison, Bobby Shew, Digby Fairweather, Warren Vaché, and Dick Pearce; trombonist Roy Williams; pianists Mose Allison and John Bunch; pianist/singer Georgie Fame; singer/guitarist Slim Gaillard; vibraphonist Pete Appleyard; and singers Jimmy Witherspoon and Norma Winstone.
Acclaimed as the doyen of jazz drummers in Ireland, Wadham was a cool, confident performer, whose impact on drumming styles and on jazz musicianship generally in Ireland was incalculable. As one colleague recounted: 'John didn't sit at the drum kit. He presided over it' (Ir. Times, 27 September 2003). George Hodnett described Wadham's playing as having 'the precision of a chronometer and the vitality of a saturation bombing' (ibid., 16 March 1973). Wadham performed regularly at the Cork Jazz Festival, appearing nearly every year from the mid 1980s, usually in the backing band for a major international artist (often as part of the Jim Doherty Trio). He also appeared at arts and jazz festivals in Dublin, Belfast, Kilkenny, Dún Laoghaire, and other locations. One of the country's leading drum teachers, he mentored hundreds of students, some of whom attained considerable success in jazz and other genres. He was among the several co‑founders in 1987 of the National Jazz Society (renamed in 1995 the Dublin Jazz Society), and performed in numerous concerts organised by the society featuring Irish and international artists. He presented two weekly jazz programmes on RTÉ radio: Instruments of jazz (1982–4), initially devoting each instalment to a particular instrument, and then to a single band or solo artist; and Jazz perspectives (1984–90), 'as viewed by John Wadham', which was commended for presenting the maximum of music with the minimum of talk; the latter programme was revived for brief periods on several occasions in the 1990s. He was in combos that provided incidental music for two satirical comedy series on RTÉ radio: with Peter O'Brien and Louis Stewart on Only slaggin' (1980s), and as part of the Jim Doherty Trio on Also known as (1989–90).
Unmarried, Wadham resided at Hollandia, Ardeevin Road, Dalkey, with his parents, whom he accompanied every summer on a two‑week holiday in Dymchurch, Kent; he remained in the family home for some time after their deaths. His last residence was Glanmire, Sidmonton Road, Bray, Co. Wicklow. Nicknamed 'The Wad', he retained his middle‑class, English home counties accent. From the early 1970s he sported distinctive mutton‑chop side‑whiskers and a handlebar moustache; he smoked a ubiquitous pipe, clenched between his foreteeth. A popular figure in Dalkey hostelries, he was an amiable raconteur, with a slightly raffish demeanour, and a fund of jokes and musician's insider stories. His interests included natural history (especially birdwatching and butterfly collecting), trainspotting, and crosswords; he owned a vast collection of recordings of British radio and television comedy, such as The goon show and Dad's army. A tribute concert to Wadham was held in the Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel, Killiney, in May 2003. He died 22 September 2003 at St Michael's hospital, Dún Laoghaire. The funeral was from St Paul's church (Church of Ireland), Glenageary, to Dean's Grange cemetery. A bronze bust of Wadham by Michael Charles Keane was unveiled in J. J. Smyth's in December 2009.