Drummer John Von Ohlen, co-founder of the Blue Wisp Big Band and featured soloist with the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman orchestras, died Wednesday. He was 77.
Von Ohlen was Cincinnati's premiere jazz drummer for the past half-century. The Indianapolis native settled in Covington, living with singer Mary Ellen Tanner, after touring with Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Mel Torme and the Holiday On Ice shows, as well as playing in pit bands for Broadway shows, according to his biography at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he was a jazz drums instructor.
In addition to five Blue Wisp Big Band albums, Von Ohlen played on recordings with jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, vocalist Carmen McRae, saxophonist Benny Carter and at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Locally, he played drums for the Steve Schmidt Trio and jazz guitarist Cal Collins.
"JVO," as he was known by musicians, also was the inspiration for the Cincinnati Jazz Hall of Fame, says founder Kay Casey.
"Five years ago, John came to me and said he had been inducted into the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame, and wouldn't it be great if Cincinnati had a jazz hall of fame. That's all I needed," Casey said. "Now we have 165 members, 645 on our free Jazz Friends email list, jazz studies scholarships, free master jazz classes for public high schools, four jazz clubs where our 'Jazz at Dusk' students perform ... and jazz is experiencing a rebirth in Cincinnati -- all thanks to John Von Ohlen!"
Von Ohlen was the drummer's drummer. That was clear in a March 2009 one-hour WVXU-FM roundtable tribute to Von Ohlen with area jazz musicians, A Celebration Of John Von Ohlen. The special will repeat at 10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6.
"Most of us kind of play the licks we've known for years, and not thinking about what we're doing," said Carmon DeLeone, drummer and director of the Cincinnati Ballet orchestra, during the 2009 radio show with Steve Schmidt, Lee Stolar, Bob Nave, Jeff Hamilton and Robyn Carey-Allgeyer. "But John is able to pre-program what's going to happen. He has a way of setting up the music so you know that the sax section is coming in now, or the lower brass. You can hear it in his drums, even before it happens. He signals it by some magical means."
Von Ohlen was known for his cymbal with a crescent moon cut out of it. At one of Von Ohlen's first Cincinnati gigs, trumpeter Al Nori joked that the cymbal looked like a dinosaur had taken a bite out of it. That convinced Von Ohlen to move here from Indianapolis.
Born in Indianapolis on May 13, 1941, Von Ohlen loved music all his life. He started playing the accordion at age 4, then advanced to piano. "It had more keys," he said during the 2009 discussion. He also played trombone and piano, which helped him appreciate and accentuate all the instruments on stage with him.
Hamilton, who dropped out of Indiana University to take lessons with Von Ohlen, praised his teacher for his understanding of all the parts of a jazz performance.
"You just can't play the charts," Hamilton said. "You have to know what every member of the band is doing, and that means listening to the third trombone part."
Von Ohlen had been in failing health for about a year. On April 30, there was a concert at the Greenwich Tavern in Walnut Hills to raise funds. A GoFundMe page was established in April to help pay for "medical issues that have resulted in some serious financial hardship."
Von Ohlen was inducted into the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards Hall of Fame in 2005. In late 2016, Jim Nunn published It's Gotta Swing: The John Von Ohlen Story, based on his many conversations with Von Ohlen at Covington's Roebling Point Books & Coffee.