Whitewater Blues
An article in Just Jazz Magazine June 2009
By Derek Winters
Reproduced by kind permission of Just Jazz, Joan Lawton & Derek Winters
All photos by courtesy of Derek Winters

Sadly, Joan's husband Eric, died on April 25th 2010
and Joan herself died on 24th May 2011

Do you remember on wash day your mother putting a small bag of chemicals in with the wash to improve the whiteness? It was called Reckitt's Blue, sometimes known as 'Dollybags' . 'Who would have thought years later this factory, preparing a substance so blue that the stains can still be seen on the walls, would re-invent itself and become the luxurious Whitewater Hotel and a renowned jazz venture known to hundreds of fans, both here and in the rest of Europe. Musicians and bands that were fortunate to get themselves booked there at one of their jazz festivals knew the Whitewater Hotel was the place to play. You got well looked after, usually stayed in luxury and welcomed by the pair that made it all happen, Eric and 'Jazzy' Joan Lawton - well, it is no more. 

Many articles in music magazines carry numerous stories of how musicians got started in the business and their career progress, but often overlooked is the small band of people who spend so much of their time running and organising jazz clubs, festivals, week-ends of jazz, and booking the rooms for the musicians to play in, usually for little or no reward. Without them there would literally be no jazz scene. After 15 years of running jazz at the famous Whitewater Hotel in Cumbria, Eric and Joan are leaving the stage, and I think a large vote of thanks are in order. 

Shorthand and short skirts 

Barrow-in-Furness, which became Cumbria, is where Joan was born, but to this day she still thinks of herself as a Lancashire lass. Leaving school, she went into what was called in those days 'office work'. She had studied and mastered the mystery art of shorthand and typing, and her main interests at that time were knitting, sewing, badminton, and dancing. She described herself as "boring". After a while she found herself in the accounts department, where a young Eric Lawton also worked. For a while he only looked at this attractive, vivacious, and very short-skirted girl who talked about rock V roll. Eric plucked up the courage, got a date, and took her to a jazz club. That was it! 

Eric knew a thing or two about this music and escorted her to pubs featuring jazz. About this time a young entrepreneur, Mike Lunn, opened a club called The Cabin, in Bowness. It became a major venue for jazz in the North of England. On a very early visit there, Eric and Joan heard Brian Carrick's Heritage Hall Stompers, and she said, "We were instantly hooked." Mike Lunn well remembers them, and was later to become friends with the couple. He described them as his most loyal members: "They were there every Friday night." During that period they got to know a good few musicians and bands along the way. For Eric and Joan, love blossomed, and the pair from the accounts department got married. 

A job at the Whitewater Hotel 

An opportunity came along for Joan to join the staff of the up-market Whitewater Hotel, and as she says now, "The move was just at the right time for me and my family." The new position was in payroll and accounts, so she was close to the action of running, planning, and administration of the hotel. After a refurbishment of the Blueworks Bar, the General Manager said he was looking for "bums on seats" and said to Joan, "You know something about this jazz thing, so can you organise a few bands to see how it goes?" Joan told me that both she and Eric seized this chance and started booking bands for the weekly Sunday sessions. That was in 1994. 

They also put their toes in the water and put on Blues nights, but this only lasted for about 18 months. No, jazz was Joan and Eric's passion, and they took a risk and got the management to agree to their first full weekend Jazz Break. They booked Brian Carrick and his Heritage Hall Stompers, Taffy Lloyd and his Serenaders, and the Liverpool-based New Orleans Express. Joan and Eric approached the weekend with everything crossed, and it turned out to be fully booked and a success. "We were in heaven," Joan said. Regular festivals followed from 1995 until this year. 

The Savannah Jazz Band became an annual mainstay and a favourite with the audiences. Brian 'Sam' Ellis, trombone man with the band, said that "working with Joan and Eric was just wonderful, and they put so much into presenting the music." The Savannah played at the Whitewater last festival, and Stan Ward has recorded it. I know Joan and Eric will get a copy. 

A good team 

Joan and Eric worked as a team in their promotion of jazz. Together they discussed what bands to book, and I know many musicians were pleased to get the call - "Would you like to play the Whitewater?" The usual reply: "You bet!" Joan did the arduous task of 'phoning round various musicians and bandleaders, then trying to manage the wishes of the various bands. Arranging accommodation for musicians can be the biggest pain: "Who shares with whom?" I must have a single room! "I can't (or won't) share with him." "Who, if anyone, is sleeping with the singer?" That's only one part of booking a band; what a job! Eric looked after that other very important part, the money. He kept the accounts and checked and attended to all the invoices, including the rather large telephone bills that the couple seemed to be accumulating. Joan told me that running the sessions was worth all the work, and said right from the start they both felt was time well spent and always fun. They booked just about everyone. 

There have been sad times. She tried to get the Chris Blount band to play there, and after some time was able to make the booking, only to find that Chris had become terminally ill, so it wasn't to be. As time goes, by other musicians who appeared at this Cumbrian venue have inevitably passed on. 

The rain and parade bands 

Like all good organisers of festivals, Eric and Joan thought, one year, that it was time that they too should have a parade band, and one was booked. Now, if you don't know the Lake District and Cumbria, I should tell you that it has been known to rain from time to time, and did it rain! You could not step outside the door. Not be put off, Joan and Eric got the full parade band to play from the reception desk, up and down the stairs, and into all the bars of this beautifully carpeted hotel; even the local newspaper covered that event. 

 Tommy Burton and Sammy Rimington 

Joan has many memories (and this is not meant to be a list of who played there), but she did reminisce when Tommy and Dot Burton 'phoned to ask if she would mind if they came to listen to a Sammy Rimington session. "Would I mind?" Joan said, and in her usual colourful, Northern, straightforward way of expressing herself, told me, "I would have personally carpeted the M6 to get them there." The evening started in the upstairs room, and then Sammy heard there was a piano downstairs in the Blueworks Bar. This stone-paved area was just wonderful to play in because of the acoustics. The whole party descended, and Mike Lunn, Tommy Burton, and various other musicians joined in to accompany Sammy. Joan also remembers a very happy Dion Cochrane giving an a cappella performance of sea shanties at the end of the evening. By all accounts it was a knockout session. I think the drink flowed well that night, and Joan, for the very first time in her life, went behind the bar to pull pints. 

Poor chef 

Not everything always runs Jazzy' Joan smoothly all the time. The weekend of jazz was about to start. The dinner tables were all laid with crisp linen tablecloths, the wine chilled or uncorked, and all was calm before the coming festivities. Then a water main burst in the village. This meant that as diners finished each course, there was no water to start the washing-up. Water was found to be on in the staff quarters, so the poor waiters had to take the plates from the table and, unseen, set up a human conveyer belt to take the crockery to a staff flat for washing up! As said in the best of circles: "The band played on!" 

Presenting jazz 

Some jazz fans and musicians alike, probably on occasions wonder what the various organisers of these events are getting out of it? One thing almost for certain is that here in the UK they are not getting rich. I posed this thought to Joan, and her reply was simple and almost expected by anyone who knows both her and Eric: "Meeting and caring for the hundreds of lovely jazz people, audiences and musicians alike." She recalls that in the early days, bands travelled many miles in good old Northern weather to play. In those days the money was low, as they could not charge on the door because it was a public bar. One of the popular bands to play the Whitewater over the years has been the Rae Brothers, who, she said, "At times travelled through snow to play the session and then faced the journey back to the North East, arriving at goodness knows what time of night." Every musician I know looked forward to getting to play the Whitewater. Brian Carrick always described it as "One of the best clubs to play." "What did we get out of it?" Joan's answer is quick: "True friendship and the greatest buzz of my life." 

Now, take a rest? 

"Yes," said Joan, and as she answered I did detect a 'but' coming. She intimated that in the future there could always be a change in the senior management of the hotel, and a decision made that presenting jazz could be good for business. There certainly remains a lot of goodwill and affection that has been built up over the years. As expected, the pair have had numerous calls from jazz fans and bands to see if they can find another venue and keep jazz alive in that part of the world. Well, we shall see, but Joan's last words to me were, "Never say never".. .


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