Watermill Jazz celebrates 20 years of great music in Dorking
- Credit: Various
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Watermill Jazz continues to attract some of the leading musicians in the field, drawing crowds of enthusiastic jazz fans to its weekly club nights in Dorking. Tinx Newton finds out more
there is nothing that warms the soul quite like the building rhythms of a live jazz session – and, here in Surrey, there can be few places better to experience that than at Watermill Jazz in Dorking.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, this much-loved club continues to attract some of the genre’s leading musicians, drawing crowds of enthusiastic jazz fans to its weekly concerts. From the confident riffs of big names such as John Dankworth and Stan Tracey in the past to rising stars such as The Impossible Gentlemen, every club night is filled with wonderful rhythms and great improvisation.
Founded in March 1994, the club began life upstairs at The Watermill pub in Reigate Road, having been started by the acclaimed pianist Ann Odell and the late Steve Spurling. Ann was an experienced and accomplished musician having played with the Ivy Benson Band, a spirited and very successful all-female swing group. During the 70s and 80s, she also worked as a busy session musician and musical arranger, playing with well-known artists such as Bryan Ferry, Blue Mink and Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber, and was awarded gold and platinum discs for the scores she wrote for the London Symphony Orchestra’s Classic Rock series.
“There was nowhere else putting on live jazz locally and, like most musicians who have a love of playing live, Steve and I were looking for somewhere to play and to invite guest musicians to join us,” says Ann, who lives in nearby Brockham. “Then, in early 1994, Steve got chatting to Darren, who was then the manager of The Watermill pub in Dorking, about the possibility of using its sizable function room as a venue for a weekly jazz club.
“So our humble beginnings were my trio – myself on piano, Mick Durell on bass and Dave Trigwell or Quinney Lawrence on drums – plus a guest every week. The idea was that the guest was a sufficiently well known name in jazz circles to put some bums on seats! On our opening night in March 1994, we featured tenor sax man Dave Quincy.”
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Later that same year, Steve and Ann separated and Steve moved to France. Keen to keep the jazz club going, however, Ann pulled out all the stops and formed a committee to help run things. Many of those committee members still work as volunteers at Watermill Jazz today and Ann says the club owes everything to them.
“I am deeply grateful for those willing and dedicated volunteers who stepped up, because without them things would definitely have ground to a halt!”
And things nearly did grind to a halt years later when a terrible fire broke out at The Watermill pub. The fire took hold in the early hours of Wednesday October 3, 2001, devastating much of the interior. Later that day, club member Paul Hobbs, a North Holmwood resident who has worked on the committee since the club’s early years, called into The Watermill to assess the extent of the damage.
By a stroke of good fortune he met Neil McRitchie coming out of the fire-ravaged property. Neil, who promoted events at Dorking Folk Club, recommended the Social Club in Pixham Lane as an alternative venue for jazz sessions and this meant that the jazz club could go ahead with a performance booked for the following evening.
Since that meeting, Watermill Jazz has used the attractive and spacious premises at Friends Life on Pixham Lane for their regular Thursday evening concerts but, as with many arts establishments, things haven’t always been easy.
“We managed to keep going somehow, although some nights I had to make a dash for the cashpoint in order to pay the musicians!” says Ann Odell. “We did get some arts council funding eventually, National Lottery money, and we met the necessary criteria by running workshops in two local schools and another at the Watermill with the Surrey Youth Big Band.”
During the club’s history, there have been many notable performances by jazz greats including Humphrey Lyttelton, Stan Tracey, the Kenny Wheeler Big Band, Julian Joseph and Claire Martin, a top British jazz vocalist and co-presenter of the BBC Radio 3’s programme, Jazz Line-Up. A big fan of Watermill Jazz, Claire is a regular visitor to the club.
“I have enjoyed my many visits to Watermill Jazz because the club has a really positive energy,” she says. “Gareth Williams and I played a memorable duo gig there a couple of years ago. More recently, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and I were pleased to be invited to play at the beautiful Menuhin Hall in Stoke d’Abernon, where Watermill Jazz hosts a yearly concert. I wish the club all the best in its 20th year.”
The club also attracts musicians from across Europe and even America, including the legendary Steve Swallow, regarded as one of the leading bassists in jazz, plus contemporary British artists such as Zoe Rahman, who won the jazz category in the prestigious MOBO Awards in 2012, and Gwilym Simcock, the dazzling pianist with the brilliant and very popular The Impossible Gentlemen.
“It’s always a great pleasure to play at the Watermill, to the knowledgeable and enthusiastic crowd who loyally patronise the fine series of concerts that have been such an artistic beacon to the area for so many years,” says Gwilym, adding his voice to the many who have paid tribute to the club on its anniversary.
A bright future
Today, the club’s fine reputation and a genuinely warm welcome encourages bands and keen jazz fans to return there again and again – helped by a strong working relationship with Neil Edeson and his team at the Friends Life Social Club. Of course, no one is more thrilled than Ann Odell that the Watermill Jazz Club is still running 20 years after its inception.
“Over the years, the committee, namely Roger Hind, Kathryn Shackleton, Steve Wetherall and Paul Hobbs, has evolved into the super efficient and passionate group of people who still run the club today,” says Ann. “I am no longer involved in the running, but bless ‘em, they made me an honorary life member.
“I could not have envisaged 20 years ago how popular and successful the club would become, attracting world-class players who are more than happy to include us in their tour itineraries. Long may it continue.”
The Watermill Jazz Anniversary Concert takes place on Thursday March 20 and will feature eight-piece ensemble Sax Appeal. With a front line-up of five sax players, they are led by Derek Nash, a member of Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. Derek has also been commissioned by the club to write music to commemorate the anniversary and this music will be premiered on the evening. To book tickets, call Steve Wetherall on 07415 815784 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit the website at watermilljazz.co.uk
5 other great places to hear jazz…
The Electric Theatre
Onslow Street, Guildford GU1 4SZ
Jazz café on the first Wednesday evening of the month.
Tel: 01483 444786 / guildford.gov.uk/electrictheatre
Sutton Jazz Club
The Thomas Wall Centre, Benhill Avenue, Sutton SM1 4DP
A relaxed and friendly club with sessions held once a month.
E-mail email@example.com / suttonjazzclub.co.uk
The Woolpack Jazz Club
The Woolpack, High Street, Banstead SM7 2NZ
Live trad jazz on the first Tuesday afternoon of every month from 2.30pm to 5.30pm.
Tel: 01737 354560 / thewoolpackbanstead.co.uk
Jazz at Boaters
Canbury Park, Lower Ham Road, Kingston KT2 5AU
Sessions take place every Sunday night, with music from 8.30pm.
Tel: 0208 541 4672 / boaterslivemusic.com
The Freeholders, St John’s Street, Farncombe GU7 3EJ
Monthly jazz in an intimate venue.
Tel: 01483 416741 / thefarncombecavern.co.uk