There’s no question–the legacy John Von Ohlen leaves behind has inspired countless musicians and will continue to encourage growth and exploration for all who come across his name. On October 3, we lost a prominent contributor to the canon of jazz drumming and big band music, but in Von Ohlen’s 77 years, he certainly left an impression.
Maybe your first experience with Von Ohlen pertained to his signature ride cymbal techniques, or maybe you noticed the moon shape that was cut out of his ride that was part of his sought-after sound. Maybe you were among the fortunate drummers who had the opportunity to study with Von Ohlen, like Jeff Hamilton did. Jeff recalled in a 2014 conversation with WVXU-FM how he’d travel into Indianapolis to study Von Ohlen and his band as a young drummer. He would eventually take lessons from John the second Von Ohlen decided to start teaching at a local drum shop. Hamilton dropped out of Indiana University, saying he was learning more from John than he was at school. “I was a total Buddy Rich clone…John had to spend eight months with me on the ride cymbal.”
An Indianapolis native, John began his musical career on the accordion when he was four-years-old, moving to the trombone and piano before focusing his career on drumming at age 17. Von Ohlen recounted that time of his life in a 1984 interview with Scott K. Fish: “When I started playing drums, I was absolutely fanatical. I played all day long. I cut school. I’d tell my mother and my dad that I was sick. As soon as they’d go off to work I’d hop up on the drums.”
Von Ohlen would go on to achieve great status as a drummer; he’d become featured soloist and drummer with the Stan Kenton, Ralph Marterie, Bill Maxted and Woody Herman Orchestras, and toured extensively with the likes of Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Mel Tormé and the Holiday on Ice shows. John was a member of the Steve Schmidt Trio and recorded several albums with Cal Collins, Keith Jarrett, John Clayton, Benny Carter and more. He also played in the pit band for four seasons of Broadway shows, and became an instructor for jazz drums at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
In 1967, Von Ohlen co-founded the Blue Wisp Big Band with trumpeter Don Johnson in Cincinnati. The band recorded five LPs. There are some great black and white videos on the Cincinnati Recording Service’s YouTube channel of the Blue Wisp Band performing in an airy, sunlit room. Observe as an older Van Ohlen masterfully swings through tunes “Whatever” and “Pag[e]ing Betty.” Other artists John would record drums for include Carmen McRae, Maxine Sullivan, Francy Boland and at the Berlin Jazz Festival.
By the time John had reached an older age, he felt there was potential for a resurgence of jazz music in the Cincinnati area, and became the inspiration for the Cincinnati Jazz Hall of fame. The CJHOF now organizes jazz studies scholarships, free master jazz classes for public high schools and four unique jazz clubs. Jazz players and enthusiasts have John Von Ohlen to thank for his vision of an expanded and thriving jazz scene in Cincinnati. John was inducted into the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards Hall of Fame in 2005.
John became known, at least amongst musical comrades, as “JVO.” Another quality JVO became known for was the grimace that would form as he bopped away. The expression portrayed a concentrated countenance, so overtly engrossed in what the man was doing behind his drums. Not so much “drummer face,” but more like an impassioned artist living in the very moment of each stroke of the stick. We’ll all miss John Von Ohlen, but thankfully what he’s left behind will serve drummers around the world forever.