Letter From Katie: Rhythm and Blues

Even in a year of loss, John Von Ohlen’s beat goes on.

Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan

Late on a November night the trees are bending in the wind, their dried leaves swirling like eddies in the gutters. The moon is bright and full, but the streets of Over-the-Rhine are deserted, possibly because a cold front has moved in and sent people scurrying back into their warm caves. But just ahead at Japp’s, bar lights shine from the windows and music wafts through the doors every time someone enters or leaves the building. It is an oasis in a dark place, and it draws you like a magnet.

The Blue Wisp Big Band came to play here when the Blue Wisp Jazz Club at Seventh and Race closed last June. Japp’s, with its fancy cocktails and hipster crowd, isn’t a place you’d associate with a big band. But drummer John von Ohlen liked Japp’s acoustics, and so all 16 pieces of the Big Band squeezed into the bar’s small stage on Wednesday nights through the summer and into fall—the reeds in the front line; the trombones next; and the trumpets behind them, with the two lead trumpet players occupying chairs on the left. The bass and the piano are like knights in a chess game, guarding the lead trumpet and the drums—the King and Queen.

John von Ohlen cooked up what became the Blue Wisp Big Band back in 1980 when he first heard “a smokin’ trumpet player” named Don Johnson. As John explained it to me, “Don and I started talking about a big band because if you get a drummer and a lead trumpet player who blow the roof off, they’ll usually start a band, you know? They just can’t help it.”

The band’s namesake club may be closed, but after 35 years, and under circumstances that might make other drummers consider putting their sticks away, John is still blowing the roof off of Cincinnati. The man just can’t help it.

Great drummers are exciting to watch, and even in Japp’s cramped quarters, the 73-year-old musician is mesmerizing—a barrel-chested man with long, rangy arms that command a powerful, fluid grace. The drum set arcs around him: the big bass drum square in front, the snare, tom-toms, and thicket of cymbals crowding all sides.

That equipment comes with the territory for a big band drummer. The magic is in what a drummer can do with it. In a post on a Drummerworld web forum, Terry Branam, a musician himself, recalled seeing John play years ago at a hotel gig. “My jaw was on the floor,” he wrote. “He used to play this ride cymbal with a bite cut out of it—like a quarter of it was missing. Dead as a doornail. In John’s hands, though, it sounded incredible.”

On this cold November night, he kicks off an Ellington tune—the upbeat, swing-y “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”. Then he switches from sticks to brushes, a sound like the swish of Fred Astaire gliding over a gritty wood floor. What he chooses and how he makes the seamless switch are mysteries in his bag of percussion tricks, the “bomb” licks he has mastered and memorized and by now employs intuitively.

The trombones add a jerky slide riff, and the trumpets begin to kick in, bringing the reed instruments along with them. Steve Schmidt plays a couple of shimmering piano choruses, bringing the band up to the Ellington level of elegant intensity. With the tension building, it’s time for John’s solo, and every eye in the place is on him. He warms up a little on the snare and the ride cymbal—the one that sets that ting-ting-ta-ting rhythm—throwing in a kick on the bass drum.

Everyone is quiet in anticipation of the climax of the solo, and John doesn’t disappoint. He is in total control: the beat leaps from one arm to the other like an electrical current. The sticks are moving so fast they blur; he is breathing hard, his hair moving from side to side. His head is turned in a profile now; his mouth is slack. He plays a rhythm on the snare and gets in a lick on the hi-hat, swinging so powerfully that the audience is shouting even as he brings the solo home, yelling as he counts the beats out for the band so they’ll all come back in together. The trombones slide their way back in on the upbeat, the reeds join in, and Hank Mautner’s trumpet climbs high and higher, a ladder of notes, until the audience is on its feet shouting and Hank and John are wailing to the end.

It’s going to be a good night.

When the band takes a break, John sits down with me to catch his breath and continue the story of the formation of the Big Band, a jazz group that was born when much of the culture was tuned in to Alice Cooper and Steely Dan. “I had a hunch people wanted to hear real big band music,” he says, “and they did.” From the first, he says there were crowds showing up at the Blue Wisp’s original home in O’Bryonville, where they played on Wednesdays to enliven the club’s traditionally dead night. “We blew the roof off the place but the acoustics were so good it didn’t hurt your ears.”

John runs his fingers through his graying hair, which he wears a little long (the Prince Valiant look, his fellow band members call it) and takes a deep breath. He props his hand on his knee, stretching slightly after the workout of the evening’s first set. He has an open face, broad and Midwestern. Originally from Indianapolis, he still has a bit of an Indiana twang that I can detect as he explains that his first major job was with Billy Maxted and His Manhattan Jazz Band. “It was a great band,” he says. “It felt like family.” But Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd came calling. Even in 1966, when a young drummer’s fancy could follow many more seemingly hip directions, John would have had to be insane to turn down that chair. True, the era of big band jazz was fast being eclipsed by rock and roll, but Herman had been at it since the 1930s and had nurtured the likes of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Al Cohn.

He played with Woody Herman for one not very satisfying year. John remembers not being happy with his performance. “I played better in high school than I did with Woody,” he says openly. He needed to get himself grounded again, and he did it by going on a round-the-world tour with a yoga and meditation master named Master Subramuniya. The Beatles were doing it, after all, and John found some peace in India that he desperately needed.

“When I stopped trying to sound like Buddy Rich or Elvin Jones, I’d begin to work on mastering my natural style, my own way,” he says. “Finding yourself is a life-long study, but everybody’s gotta do it.”

The first band John heard live as a teenager was Stan Kenton, and Stan Kenton became his idol. He’d gotten to know Kenton a bit while he was with Woody Herman and in 1970, he got the call to join the fabled bandleader. “When I went with him it was like coming home,” he recalls. “Where Woody had been a real hard-charger, Stan was easy. I was on an album called Downtown Blues, and after that I made something of an international reputation for myself as the featured soloist with the Kenton Band.”

They played together for two years, but John found the road exhausting. In 1972, he left the grind and returned to India for what he calls “a period of study.”

“Stan had a fit,” he recalls. “He wanted me to stay or to settle in L.A. and be a big band drummer out there if I couldn’t take the road anymore. But I didn’t see it that way.” How did he see it? “Man, there’s good musicians everywhere. Music is, like, universal.” John returned to the Midwest, played with some “heavy-duty cats” in Indianapolis, and eventually rented a cabin (which he still keeps as a getaway) in Sunman, Indiana. He rejoined Stan Kenton briefly when Kenton’s drummer hurt his ankle. “I could never pay him back for what he taught me about music,” he says. But by that time John had—stubbornly, some would say—cast his lot in our neck of the woods.

“There I was in my cabin in Sunman,” he says, “and I didn’t know anybody. [Guitarist] Cal Collins had heard I was in Indiana and he called me to play a job at the Buccaneer, out on Reading Road in Cincinnati.” Around that same time, he met Don Johnson while filling in on The Bob Braun Show, forming a musical partnership that lasted until Johnson left town in the 1990s. The band that they started prompted John to make Cincinnati his home. And it would also prove that John’s theory was true: Man, there’s good musicians everywhere.

Huge talents passed through the Blue Wisp Jazz Club in its heyday. In addition to Cal Collins, John played with Joe Pass; Ellington alumni such as Bill Berry; Concord recording artists Scott Hamilton and Warren Vaché; and the cosmic jazzman Sun Ra. He joined Rosemary Clooney on tour for a while and recorded with singer Maxine Sullivan.

When it came to romance, it was only natural that John ended up with the best “girl singer” in town, Mary Ellen Tanner. Pretty, petite Mary Ellen, with her rich voice and impeccable technique, gave John something few others offered. When his life was a pressure cooker of jobs and obligations, Mary Ellen made him laugh. “I loved to come in at night and hear her quacking on the phone with one of her girlfriends,” he says. “She’d wave at me and smile and go right on quacking. I didn’t care. I just loved the sound of her voice.” John pauses for a moment. “She was a magic person. She’d make the check-out girl at Kroger’s feel better just by going in and buying a loaf of bread.”

Mary Ellen died last spring; when I called him months later, he still had her silky voice on the answering machine. He says he doesn’t know how to change it. I doubt that. I remember seeing John sitting drawn and pale white in the funeral home at her wake. It was unprecedented to see him so powerless.

His power never really left him, though, and now, as he begins to come back to himself, he reminds me of an overworked, underpaid executive. What he lacks in material goods, though, he makes up for in adoration. His students (he is an adjunct instructor at CCM) are in awe of him. To the consternation of his academic colleagues, he used to urge his students to quit school and learn their chops on the job. “Go to work,” he would say, “that’s the way you learn.” Just keep playing, he’d insist, and you’ll come up with the “bomb licks”—unique drum riffs that nobody else can play. Mastering your own style, he concludes, “is the only authentic way to live.”

Back at Japp’s, it’s time “to get the animals back in the pit” as Marjean Wisby, owner of the old Blue Wisp club used to say. John groans a little, then picks himself up and shakes it off. “Art,” he says, “is sweat and dreams.” He salutes me with a drum stick he has picked up and goes back onstage for the last set.

The magic of my night at Japp’s did not last long. A week later, the Blue Wisp Big Band’s engagement ended, and the group was once again out on the curb, in dire need of a permanent home.

“We’re still looking into things,” John says when we get together in November. He’s not looking too worried; the band played their traditional Thanksgiving Eve show—three deeply satisfying sets—in front of a standing-room-only crowd upstairs at York Street Café in Newport, and in early December took up residence (for now) at The Pirate’s Den in Western Hills. There have been offers from other bars and clubs that want the band to play, John says, but he is more concerned about finding a place he wants the band to play. It’s not just the yoga that allows him to maintain his cool; he still works five or six nights a week, including a regular weekend gig at the Dee Felice Cafe in Covington. At 73. In Cincinnati. Very few jazz drummers anywhere can say that.

Steve Schmidt, the Blue Wisp’s longtime pianist, has played with John for more than 30 years. “What I love about John is his delight in the music,” he says. “He is childlike, but he is sophisticated, too. When the band is playing, John is always fully present in the music. There is no separation in him; he is whole.”

That comes across best when you see him live with the Blue Wisp Big Band—his musical, and some would probably say spiritual, home. If you can’t make it out to the Pirate’s Den soon, you can content yourself with the Big Band’s recordings—Butterfly, Rollin’ with Von Ohlen, and Live at Carmelo’s. They’re not easy to find; most albums are on vinyl or CD, and little from the Blue Wisp phase of John’s career has been digitized. But it’s worth the effort. If you can score one, put it on your turntable, mix yourself a Manhattan, and get ready to swing.

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