The Baron John Von Ohlen

John Von Ohlen accenting the beat on his crash cymbal.

John Von Ohlen, born May 13th, 1941 in Indianapolis, IN, is a jazz drummer, bandleader, and recording artist. Widely known as having been the drummer for Woody Herman in 1967 and 1969, then with Stan Kenton from 1970 to 1972, he began his musical journey as young boy, taking classical piano lessons. A few years later he joined his school band where he learned to play trombone. It wasn’t until he was 14 and heard Mel Lewis with Stan Kenton’s orchestra that he would begin the transformation to drummer.

John remembers “I didn’t know anything about drums or even think about them, but when I saw Mel Lewis that night the next day when I woke up, in my head, I was a drummer.” But the physical transformation looked to be just a dream, due to little extra funds to purchase a drum set for him to practice on. Thanks to a stroke of fate that changed; John was able to rent a very good set from a family friend who had just joined the Navy. “All of a sudden, he went into the Navy, so he said, ‘Why don’t you take the set and pay me $12 a month?’ So I had a great new set.”

That moment led a young John Von Ohlen on a journey of long practice days, many times skipping school to do so. He had no formal training on percussion, but his obsession drove him to just continue practicing and experimenting until he started to figure things out. He would blare the Hi-Fi and play along, “I’ve got the hi-fi as loud as it’ll go and I’m playing the drums all day long, and the whole family that lived next door to us was deaf. We lived very near the deaf school in Indianapolis, and the whole family went there. Was that an omen or what?”

After making a few breakthroughs, John took over drumming for his high school jazz band. After graduating he attended the prestigious Jazz school at North Texas State University. He began to gig nightly in what he commonly calls “minor league” bands. Working his way on to the scene and starting to work his way up to more established bands; he realized that his path to becoming a professional lay there, rather than by way of a formal college education. “I tell my students it’s a shame we don’t have that natural system,” he says. “Instead of going to school, you’d start working. It’s different than school.”

He played with Ralph Marterie for a year-and-a-half stretch, then joined the Army band playing in a stateside Showmobile. After the army, he returned to Indianapolis as a polished club drummer. While there, he was scouted by Billy Maxted, for his Manhattan Jazz Band. It was a band he had planned on approaching to join anyway, so when Maxted offered the job, John signed on.

In 1967, after a year with the Manhattan Jazz Band, John took a job with the Woody Herman band. He toured with the band through the United States and Europe. In 1970, not long after leaving the Herman band, John received a call from one of his hero’s, Stan Kenton to tour year round. “That was my dream to play with Stan Kenton. I played with him for two years. It was a completely over-the-top band. He was a great leader, and he gave me all the confidence I ever needed.

It was with Kenton that John was given his nickname “The Baron.” “I know why he did it,” John says. “It was a handle for the audience. Everybody’s named John, but there’s only one Baron. I have no idea where he got it from. Stan always tried to make his musicians into stars. He always mentioned me in publications, and it helped. One year when I was with Stan, in the popularity poll in Downbeat I made the Top 10. And that was because of Stan.”

After Kenton, John returned to Indianapolis. He formed the electronic combo, the Baron Von Ohlen Quartet, but discontinued it because the sonic frequencies aggravated his tinnitus. Then he started a big band with Indiana writer Steve Allee, which remained active throughout the ’70s.

John began getting calls to work with the great guitarist Cal Collins in Cincinnati, OH. These offers became so frequent he decided to purchase a home halfway between Indianapolis and Cincinnati so that he could easily work in both markets. This later led to his become becoming the house drummer in the Steve Schmidt trio at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club.

As John’s Cincinnati work increased he began meeting many of the talented horn players that were working for shows and singers. After a gig on the Bob Braun Show, John went out for drinks with trumpeter Don Johnson. This lead to a conversation that ended with them planning to start a Cincinnati big band.

Don organised the horn section and petitioned the union to allow the band to play a club night for the door. He won them over stating that the gig would probably last no longer than a month or so. John approached the Paul and Marjean Wisby (the owners of the Blue Wisp Jazz Club) about playing on Wednesday nights at the Blue Wisp. John remembers “We rehearsed in the back of a music store for a month, and the band felt good. Big Band can be an animal that’s hard to control, but this group swung by itself.”

It didn’t take long for the new band to start gaining a following. John had wanted to give it a more formal name that associated it with the city of Cincinnati, but after a few months at the club, the owner, Paul Wisby declared to the audience it was the club’s band and so the Blue Wisp Big Band was christened.

The band celebrated their 35th year in January of 2015. John Von Ohlen remained the drummer of the band until April of 2017.

Since the late 1970’s until today, John has and continues to freelance with a wide variety of Cincinnati area ensembles. With the Blue Wisp Big Band he has recorded five LPs. As member of the Steve Schmidt Trio, he has also recorded numerous albums with artists such as Cal Collins, Maxine Sullivan, Keith Jarrett, Carmen McRae, John Clayton, Francy Boland, and Benny Carter with the WDR Radio Orchestra and at the Berlin Jazz Festival . He toured Japan and recorded with Mel Torme and Marty Paich Orchestra.

John is also is a professor of percussion at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music where he teaches jazz drumming and plays in the faculty Jazztet.

Interview with John (Wandering Wolf Pod Cast)