He was a drummer, bandleader and recording artist. You could only marvel at his effortless technique, his musicality and his seamless communication with his fellow musicians. Small wonder he was the drummer of choice for Rosemary Clooney, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Tony Bennett, Benny Goodman, Mel Torme and Perry Como. He toured and recorded with Kenton for two years.
Von Ohlen was one of the last big band drummers of his era.
“Performing with and discussing music — and philosophy — with John Von Ohlen has been one of the great joys of my life,” said Rick VanMatre, saxophonist and former director of Jazz Studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. “Asking John to join the CCM jazz faculty in 1985 was the best decision we could have made for the students, the faculty, and the legacy of the Jazz Studies Program.”
For most of us, he was the anchor and co-founder of Cincinnati’s Blue Wisp Big Band. When he propelled the swing of a big band standard such as “Too Close for Comfort,” you could hardly believe your good luck at being there to witness it. He used the cymbals for atmosphere like no one else. Who will ever forget the way he played the Miles Davis tune from “Miles Ahead”?
Two years ago, over coffee in the Roebling Point Books & Coffee Bookstore, I talked to Von Ohlen and Jim Nunn about Nunn’s new biography, “It’s Gotta Swing: The John Von Ohlen Story.” Von Ohlen was sitting incongruously in the children’s section, where he and Nunn had conducted interviews over two years. The drummer said he’d felt the lure of a big band since he was 14. He was born in 1941 in Indianapolis, raised by a single dad and a “hell on wheels” grandmother.
“A big band is an animal. When it’s not happening, or it’s hard to do, it’s just a big drag. But when a big band is hot, there’s nothing like it for jazz,” he explained. “I remember when I saw Kenton’s band when I was 16, and you’re real impressionable. And I’m sitting right in front of the band, at a dance. I’m standing right there. And that brass, when they came in, I tell ya, it’s like your hair is flowing in the breeze. And it was all acoustic.”
For 36 years, Von Ohlen — distinguished by his trademark pageboy mane of hair — reigned every Wednesday night with the Blue Wisp Big Band, which, in recent years has had a nomadic existence. (You can hear them now at the Caffe Vivace on East McMillan.) On other nights, he had a regular gig at the Dee Felice Cafe in Covington.
And for more than 30 years, he coached young jazz lions at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music as an adjunct instructor.
Von Ohlen was self-taught. His earliest inspiration was in the African-American jazz clubs in Indianapolis, where he reveled to the artistry of jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. “It was jazz heaven,” he said.
Von Ohlen mainly learned from “the school of hard knocks,” on the road for 12 years as he toured with bandleaders Kenton (1970-72) and Woody Herman (1967 and 1969).
For 20 years, he was Rosemary Clooney’s drummer for her Midwestern shows. The Maysville, KY, native and star of “White Christmas” was “the best boss I ever had,” he said.
He had the idea to start a big band while playing as a sub on the Bob Braun show with the lead trumpeter, Don Johnson. Because they were always playing behind singers, Von Ohlen asked Johnson one day, “Why don’t we start a band and play what we want to play?”
It was Von Ohlen’s idea to start a Cincinnati Jazz Hall of Fame. The nonprofit recognizes Cincinnati’s storied jazz musicians.
“John has been on our Cincinnati Jazz Hall of Fame Board since our founding in March of 2015. He loved coming to the Board meetings and was an active contributor,” said Kay Casey, founder and CEO of the Jazz Hall of Fame. “He was a monumental talent and a dear friend.”
Most people don’t know that he also played piano. About a year ago, CCM jazz prof Kim Pensyl — himself a pianist, trumpeter, and prolific jazz recording artist — heard him play one day and urged him to make a recording. The jazz community raised money on Kickstarter to pay for studio and production costs for the album, called “The Pond.”
Von Ohlen served for two years in the United States Army during the Vietnam Era. Playing in the Army band saved his life, not because of the war, but because it forced him to give up the drugs that had been a part of life on the road, he outlines in his biography.
He was preceded in death by his life partner, Mary Ellen Tanner, former singer on the Bob Braun Show, who died in 2014.
Read John Kiesewetter’s lovely tribute here.
John reports that WVXU-FM repeats a one-hour “Celebration of John Von Ohlen” roundtable discussion with JVO, Steve Schmidt, Carmon DeLeone, Bob Nave, Jeff Hamilton, Lee Stolar and Robyn Carey-Allgeyer, 10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6.
A memorial tribute will be announced.