Interview with big band drummer John von Ohlen from Modern Drummer, March, 1985, by Scott K. Fish, with the many good parts pulled out here, by me. Von Ohlen toured with with the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton bands before retiring from the road to live in Cincinnati, where he formed the Blue Wisp big band. I forgot how much this influenced me- I must've reread this a dozen times during the long bus rides on drum corps tour when it was originally published. I was never much of a big band player, but Greg Hall did have us playing Blue Wisp's Love For Sale arrangement at South Eugene High School that year.
Interview excerpts are after the break:
Note: if you don't own the magazines already, you should buy the Modern Drummer digital archive- it's a great resource for anyone serious about the drums.
Playing with the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton bands:
I loved [the Herman band] for the first three days, but then they got a new bass player, and he and I weren't compatible when it came to playing. [...] So I didn't enjoy my tenure with Woody too much. I didn't realize back then what I know now. If a drummer isn't compatible with the bass player, there's got to be a change, because everything the drummer does comes off the bass player.
When I was with Kenton, the band was huge. He used to spread all 19 musicians across the bandstand from one end to the other, no matter how big the concert hall was. He loved that stereophonic crap, but we couldn't hear anything. Out front it sounded great. But the baritone player and the bass trombone player never heard each other. I had to sit in the middle and hold all that together. I didn't waste too much time trying to get a nice, subtle feel with the bass player. I was just trying to hold it together. When Kenton's band set up in a block formation, as we did at dances—and that's the way a band should be set up—then the band would swing; then we'd get into playing some jazz.
Q: Did you feel comfortable right away in Stan's band?
JVO: Oh yeah. Jake Hanna said something that was very true: The last thing a drummer gets is confidence. You pay your dues, you try your best, but it's not coming out right; then the last thing you acquire is confidence. Once you've got confidence, even if you're screwing up a little bit, you'll make something out of it. If you don't have confidence, every time something goes wrong, the bottom drops out. By the time I went on Stan's band, I had my confidence. I'd paid my dues.
I used to get really depressed on Woody's band, because I just couldn't play good. It's the same thing that any young player will say. You know you've got it inside you, but you can't get it out. And I'd been playing constantly—some bad gigs, some good gigs—almost every night for about eight years. I was going through something that Elvin Jones mentioned one time. He said something that made me feel a lot better, which was that as a young drummer, you'll go through a period where you can't play too well, but don't let it bother you. It happens to all of us. Hell, I felt like I played better in high school than I did with Woody. I was just starting to get it and I quit Woody's band.
I couldn't make the road anymore. I just wanted to go home and relax. You might as well play the way you play, because you're going to get criticism anyway. When I am criticized now it doesn't shake my foundation out from under me, but it used to.
I always had drum charts in the band. I could probably read better than the drummers, because I spent all that time playing piano and trombone. But I still believe that the drum part is the part that composers feel they need to put the least amount of effort into, especially on jazz tunes. They either give you nothing or so much that you don't know what's up. All you want is a road map. You basically want a miniature score on punctuation— especially who's doing the punctuating. Around here, the composers know I don't like standard drum charts. I ask them to write me the actual line. For instance, if it's a tutti section where the whole band is playing, give me the lead line of whoever is playing the melody. Write the actual notes down, so I know the shape of the melodic line. In a standard drum part, all you've got are static notes, written straight across like they were done by a typewriter, and you don't know the shape of the melodic line. If the lead player had a series of eight 8th notes that start on a D in the staff, and in the middle of the line it goes up to high B, then you can figure that it's going to get stronger. Then, maybe the melodic line will come back down. That's how you'd shape it. But if it's written like a standard drum part, you don't know where it's going. Give me everything the melody player has. Now, that's best for me, but it may not be for another drummer. Since I've played horn all my life, I can feel what the band is going to get into just by the shape of that line. Sure, if you're on a road band, it doesn't matter. In seven days, you've got the chart down anyway. But I like to get a chart the first time.
Q: How do you feel about charts that have parts written for all four limbs?
JVO: That's totally out of it in jazz swing. You can't play that way. First of all, you know that you're going to be playing a lot of time. So describe what you want the drummer to do in English words like "swing." That's better than trying to write everything in. Bill Holman's drum parts are real good. He uses a lot of English words like "bust in." That makes more sense to me than writing out the fills and cymbal crashes. Just tell me what the band's doing. Then it's up to my taste and expertise to do what can't be written down in a practical manner anyway.
Drums and tuning:
The way I tune my drums is pretty natural. On my tom-toms, first I tune the bottom head to about medium. It should be a new head with no dents in it. Next, I tighten the top head tight. Then, as I'm tapping on the head, I start bringing it down. As you bring it down, you'll start hearing that drum open up. Keep tapping it as you're loosening it, and finally, it will get to where it's booming as much as it can. If you loosen past that, you'll start getting a duller sound, so tighten it back up until it's booming the most. Usually it's tightened medium-low at that point. So when you get the bottom head tuned medium, and the top head tuned medium-low, that's when you reach the point of maximum resonance. A good drummer named Jack Gilfoy, from Indianapolis, came up with that term. Tune the drum for maximum resonance where it's wide open.
I use regular coated Ambassador heads, top and bottom, on my drums. I would love to use calf, but I'm not going to mess with them. And I apply that same tuning principle to my bass drum. Sometimes, if I'm playing a bop gig, I'll tighten the back head up a little, just a little higher than maximum resonance. I like a boom sound. With a big band, sometimes I'll lower it a little more than the natural boom of maximum resonance.
Q: When drums are tuned for that low sound, don't you have to sacrifice something?
JVO: Yeah. You may sacrifice some speed and technique. But even so, you're getting a great sound. You're really getting those drums to boom and rumble. Personally, I can play as fast as anyone, with natural low tuning. I'll take one shot on the tomtom that far surpasses a single-stroke roll on a drum that doesn't have the sound. I use Gretsch, and Gretsch is one of the best drums for getting that extra little crack on it that I don't hear in other drums. My drumset is about seven years old, but I've played newer Gretsch sets and they're still good. If you hit a Gretsch tom-tom softly, it gets a nice sound. But if you whip it just a little bit, it'll put a cracking sound on it. I
don't know any other drum that does that.
Q: Did your drumset change from Billy Maxted through Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and now the Blue Wisp Big Band?
JVO: I've always used just four drums—a bass drum, two tom-toms and a snare— but I did change the sizes. With Maxted, Woody and Kenton's bands, I used a 22" bass drum, 9 x 13 and 16 x 16 tom-toms,
and a 5 1/2 x 14 snare. And I had a couple of cymbals. Now I'm using a 14 x 18 bass drum, 8x12 and 14x14 tom-toms. There's nothing like an 18" Gretsch bass drum. It's real fat sounding and real wide sounding; it resonates like crazy, and it's easier for me to tune than a 20" bass drum. Kenton's band was like playing football seven nights a week—an athletic event. The 18" would have sounded foolish in that. The Blue Wisp Band is a nice, strong band, but the 18" is just right. One gun is all you need if you know how to use it.
Stan Kenton always had to have huge, oversized cymbals in his band. If you used regular cymbals, it just didn't make it. Kenton loved an ocean of cymbals all the time, coming through everything. To him— and I adopt the same philosophy in bebop— the cymbals set up an atmosphere around the bandstand of jazz heat, like you're in a jazz furnace. Stan's thing was to have the cymbals roaring, and he liked them loud too.
The Kenton clinics:
Well, they were wonderful experiences. There was only one thing that might have been a detriment. Teaching should be done by someone who knows. We were going into all these clinics, and a lot of guys in the band were just learning themselves, but we were put in teaching positions. The kids looked up to us because we were with a nationwide touring band. So you're spouting out all this crap that is probably erroneous. I was guilty of that sometimes, but there were guys in the band who were in a lot worse shape than I was, and they were giving dissertations that were wrong.
They were into how to play loud and nothing else. What the hell kind of clinic is that?
Technique is simply how you do what you hear. But let's not put the cart before the horse. You don't work on technique first, in hopes that technique will bring you ideas. I worked on a fast single-stroke roll for a while. It bound me in such a knot on the gig that I couldn't play. I had to give up on it. It should come from your natural ability, and each person has a different physical body. I try to do what's natural for my physical body. If it's too unnatural, I'm not going to force it. I'm about six feet tall and I've got real long arms, real long legs and a short torso. I used to say, "Boy, I'm built strange. I'm built weird. I wish I was built more like Buddy Rich or Tony Williams." Many times the shorter musicians have great technique. But you make your physical body work for you by simply doing what's natural for you.
I like a nice long stroke with my right hand on the ride cymbal. A lot of people tell me I should have a short stroke. I tried that. It isn't natural, so I don't do it. All of us are born with different amounts of genius or without genius—different amounts of talent. There will always be somebody who is better than you are and somebody who is not. You have to live with that. Know your limits and then you'll be happy. Go beyond your natural limits and you'll suffer. Inside of me, my time feel has basically never been any different.
[P]laying with Kenton was not a light drumming experience. I like the strong concept of drumming. I know that there are different ways to go on the bandstand, and I sure am in love and sympathy with all types of music. But when I play with a big band, I don't like to get too cerebral or esoteric, even though I love that kind of music. When I play, I love to hear the drums go right out there. Only, I like it relaxed. That might be the difference. I know that some young drummers are into power and they want to really put it out there, but they do it with their muscles. I very seldom hit the drum with my muscle. I do what Ed Soph suggested in one of his articles. If you want to hit the drum softly, lift your hand up a little ways and drop it. If you want to play louder, lift your hand farther back and drop it. But you're always dropping it. It's a law of gravity. There are times when you have to mash it, but I try to keep the groundwork of my drumming based on dropping the sticks. It really relaxes your body, you get a great sound, and you can play loud without bothering the other band members. When a drummer starts hammering, the other
musicians will get bugged. But if you want to play strong the way I like to, then it's an all-embracing sound, rather than a hurting sound. I like to get a nice, enveloping sound all over the bandstand.
Simplicity and relaxation:
I always stressed that drummers shouldn't take it too seriously and should relax. Keep your physical body as relaxed as possible while you're playing. Right away, you get a better sound, and your time will probably be better because you are relaxed and free in your mind. Every time you get a bunch of drummers together, they're so serious. They're thinking about all of this crap they've got to do because of all these heavy drummers around the country. Man, some of the best moments in drumming have been the simplest little things. Don't worry about trying to be complicated. Bob Phillips used to tell me, "John, if you never remember anything else I ever said, don't be afraid to play simple. Don't be ashamed to play simple." I like to play as complicated as the next guy, but you don't have to do that. Your base should be a simple perspective. Harvey Mason can play complicated, but he lays down some pretty simple things. It's got that feel on it, so what the hell. You don't need to do much when you've got the feel. Why blow the feel for some brainy idea?
I never really tapped into brushwork until I played them for quite a while on the job. Then one day, I opened up into the real world of brushes. I softened my hands a bit, and let the brushes drag across the drum by their own weight, rather than trying to scrape them across. The most important thing with brushes is to come in from the side, instead of coming down on the drum like you do with a stick. Brushes have more of a horizontal motion than vertical. Right away you get that sweep.
There are a lot of players, but there are only a few great players. Teachers are the same way. There are some teachers— and Bob Phillips is one of them—who can see through you. They can see what's inside you, no matter what you've done. You might be a student who's built a wall of technique that's actually inhibiting your feeling, because you have built up a grid work of technique that's unnatural for you. A really great teacher will strip all that down and make you start over with things that are more natural for you—more in tune with nature. I had to do that with a couple of my students.
It takes a long time and a willing student. The student has to understand what's happening. I had students from universities who had worked on books and other ways of technique that had nothing to do with what they had to say. And they were very frustrated. I'd start them at the beginning with a simple beat, and they'd throw in a lick that they'd been programmed with. I'd stop them right there and tell them to leave the lick out, because it wasn't natural for them. It's a difficult task, but it can be done.
Q: I gather that you don't feel too favorably about drum method books?
JVO: I'll tell you a story that's reportedly true about a wise old Indian sage. A German came to this sage's village to find the truth. The German was in a bookstore one day when the sage walked by and saw him. The sage picked the guy up by the collar, threw him out of the bookstore and said, "It's not in books, you fool." That's the way I feel about drumming.
I know it's nice to have a book. These teachers who put out books are well meaning. But it's not really in books. What book did Mel Lewis study out of? What book did Elvin Jones study out of? You might study rudiments. Okay, that's a good foundation. Formal classical study is always good. But once you're past the rudiments, don't become too steeped in the book knowledge of drumset playing.
You need to go out and work. That's where you get it—on the job. If you are working, and you are right in there pitching, these things will come to you anyway. Experiment at home with your natural style of chops. My main concern is developing muscle-bound chops from practicing things that aren't natural for you anyway in the name of speed. You've got your own natural licks. If you just keep playing, man, you'll come up with some bomb licks that nobody can play. It may not be a big thing, but there will be nobody else who can play it. It's your lick. That's the kind of chops you should have. You should have licks come out of you and not even know how you did them. Real licks, when they come out of you, will have dynamics and shading that you could never practice out of a book.
Studying harmony and melody:
Get as many tones in your subconscious as you can. Drummers like Jack DeJohnette seem to play different when they've been brought up with a horn or piano. A lot of these really hot drummers have tones in their heads too, not just beats. I don't mean that they're just singing the melody. They're into harmony and everything else. I think of the total spectrum of sound vibration—harmonies, colors and everything—all at once. The only reason I do that is because I grew up with tonal instruments. When I play drums, I enter the tonal world, instead of just rhythm and chops.
I went to North Texas State because I was coming out of 12 years of school, and I thought I should go to college. Prior to going, Bob Phillips had said to me, "Think about your favorite players. How many of them went to school?" I couldn't think of any— not one. Bob said, "You don't need to go to school. Just start working. You already know what you want to do." That was back when all kinds of work was available. Now, with very little work around, school is at least a place to play.
Some people I knew in San Francisco and I had an opportunity to visit all the cultural places in the world—especially the Orient. We went to India, Japan, Russia and a little bit of Europe, and saw the folk musics of those countries. I was an American who'd only been exposed to American music, and when I heard these folk musicians, it was so real and ancient—generations and generations of people playing this pure folk music. I'm not talking about Appalachian-style folk music, although that music is great. I'm talking about some really mystical stuff— so soulful and coming from such a deep place that I couldn't believe it. I had a different feeling about music in general when I got back. After that, I didn't want to be a studio musician anymore. I was just interested in traveling around and playing good music for an audience that wants to hear it. I wasn't so interested in name and fame anymore. All young drummers probably want to—and should—make their mark. If they can play the drums, they probably want everybody to know it. But, for me, there came a time when that feeling fell away, and I just wanted to play.
Living in the Midwest:
A lot of things changed when I left Kenton. First of all, he was such a great influence on everyone around him. Half the time I liked his music; half the time I didn't. When it was right, it was some of the greatest big band music that ever came down the pike. When it was wrong, it could be most pretentious. But he had an element of drama in his music that I miss in other big bands. He was into composers. When I left Stan, I had to drop that concept, because it was his and not mine. I spent a long time thinking about how I felt about music. You get a lot of time to do that, living out here in the country in the Midwest.
Q: From living in the Midwest, and from letters I used to get at MD, my experience was that many musicians living there had a mystique about New York City. Many of them didn't feel that they were good enough to compete there.
JVO: That's too bad. Urbie Green told me that, in the old days, you could go to Louisville, Kentucky, and those cats had a definite way of playing jazz. There was no mistaking it. In Indianapolis, they had a totally different way of playing jazz. And in Columbus, Ohio, those cats had a jazz concept that was totally different. Today, everybody's so homogenized into New York and L.A. That's bullshit. New York is still the most active jazz town, but I don't have to sound like a New Yorker. We've got a Midwestern way of doing things. The feel is different. The rhythms and harmonics reflect that feel.
I fell in love with country living. As long as I can play good music in the Midwest and live in the country, I'm happy. I don't need to make a splash out on the road. As long as you're playing music, why hit the road? Usually you do that because there's nothing going on in your area.
Starting Blue Wisp big band:
[W]e've got fine players in Cincinnati. All these guys were doing was playing shows, which is a drag if that's all you're doing. I came up with the idea of starting a band in which we would play what we like to play, and then interest a club owner. You can usually interest a club owner very easily by playing for the door. So, we got the best players in town and started Wednesday nights at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club. We've been together, with the same guys, for about five years. This band is real natural and fun to play with.
Q: Would you encourage musicians in other areas to organize big bands?
JVO: Try it. And get rid of this idea about New York and L.A. They've got all the music they need. There are good musicians everywhere. Don't think about having to go to New York to make it big. It's just super dues, and you can live a fairly nice life-style out in the fields here. Just get the good musicians, and keep it on a simple level. We keep it very simple; therefore, it's fun. And if you're lucky enough to get a good band, you might even make a statement in jazz. It's not a question of our band being better than anybody. Just get your own thing going in your own area.
The most important thing for people to do is to dig what they do naturally. Young drummers think that they've got to do it all. Some drummers can do that naturally, like Shelly Manne. Well, maybe some drummers can't do everything. But spend as much time as you can playing what you do naturally, and then you can dig deep. It's like Thelonious Monk. You didn't see him doing studio dates. He dug into his own world. If you play rock and have an especially good feel for rock, but you don't do everything else, don't worry about it. Just dig into your rock playing. That's why I'm playing jazz almost exclusively. I don't take rock jobs anymore. I don't mind going out and visiting rock, but you've got to know where your home is. I try to play my home music, jazz, as much as possible, and I find that I can go deep that way. You can't really go deep if you're just skimming around doing everything. Someone once said, "Do what you do naturally, everyday, for the rest of your life." That's how you can advance. At first, you usually emulate the master drummers. They're usually older than you, but not always. You imitate them because you haven't found your own way yet. Then one day you'll hear, for the first time, your own natural style. Every drummer has a different style that couldn't be conjured up. It's just there naturally and always has been. The day that you first begin to become aware of it is your day of liberation. From that point on, instead of trying to sound like Steve Gadd, Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis or Elvin Jones, you begin the real work of mastering your own natural style, your own way. It's a lifelong study and I love it.