MD interview: John von Ohlen


Platinum Member
I was looking through the archives, and found this interview with big band drummer John von Ohlen from Modern Drummer, March, 1985. 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 re-read this a bunch of times during the long bus rides on corps tour when it originally came out, and I forgot how much it influenced me. I posted a longer excerpt on my recently-revived Cruise Ship Drummer! blog, if anyone wants to read more.

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.

Drum charts:
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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Terry Branam

Official DW Chief Transcriber
That man is one of my heroes!! Was lucky enough to study with him a bit in Cincinnati. He will swing you into bad health all day long!!!!

He is one of music's unsung heroes for sure. I believe he still plays in the big band at the Wisp on Wednesday nights. I really need to go back and see/hear him play again. Unreal.

I remember seeing him do a gig at the Hyatt backing Joe Lovano and my jaw was on the floor. I never knew he could sound so modern. He used to play this ride cymbal with a huge bite cut out of it. Like almost a quarter of it missing. Dead as a doornail. In his hands, it sounded incredible.

Thanks Todd for sharing this interview. Love the guy!!!!