Since World War II, music lovers have been asking if big bands will ever come back. But big bands never really went away. Their ranks just thinned out—survival of the fittest. There was a time when the big band drummer was the role model for aspiring drummers. Swing music was the popular music at a time in history when kids and their parents both liked the same music.
John Von Ohlen, like all of the best big band drummers, is a special character. He can swing hard and fast; soft and fast; hard and slow; or soft and slow. John has that special ability to lead an average of 18 or 19 musicians by keeping time, catching accents, playing fills, lighting the fire under a soloist, ho/ding back an overzealous soloist, coloring an arrangement, playing with dynamics and playing musical drum solos. And these are only the requirements for big band drumming. Add to that his ability to play shows, rock ‘n’ roll, funk, and Latin, along with his expertise on both trombone and piano, and you’ve got one accomplished musician.
John’s most visible years were spent with Woody Herman and, more notably, Stan Kenton. After initially developing himself for a career as a studio musician, Von Ohlen scrapped that idea. After leaving Kenton in the mid- ’70s, it seemed that John Von Ohlen had disappeared and, in a sense, he had. He disappeared from the road into the “sticks” of Indiana, and formed one of the best big bands on today’s scene, The Blue Wisp Big Band. Blue Wisp is an amalgamation of some of the best musicians in and around Cincinnati. Beginning their sixth year together, Blue Wisp and John have been visible mostly at The Blue Wisp Jazz Club in Cincinnati on Wednesday nights. But Von Ohlen is extremely grateful to two entrepreneurs—Helen and Fred Morr—who believed in the band enough to sign them to their record label, MoPro Records.
Blue Wisp has recorded four super albums. The first is currently out of print, but will be re-released soon on the MoPro label. In 1982, MoPro released Butterfly. The Smooth One followed in ’83, and in ’84, Blue Wisp came out with a live record- ing called Live At Carmelo’s. Von Ohlen, like everyone in the band, plays wonder- fully, through standards like “Love For Sale,” to bebop tunes like “Nica’s Dream” and “Evidence, ” to show tunes and the excellent arrangements of other- wise campy tunes like ” Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.”
John Von Ohlen is a sincere, dedicated and gregarious musician. He takes his work very seriously, but never loses his sense of humor. Be forewarned that John is as straight-ahead in answering questions as he is in his playing. Even in discussing his work or sound on records, John is the first one to tell you when he’s not happy with the results. I hope everyone learns as much from reading this interview as I did in conducting it.
MD: Why did you get into the music business in the first place?
John: In 1945 or ’46, my dad and his friend used to always go to see big bands in Indianapolis, where I grew up. When I was four years old, I distinctly remember my dad and his friend giving me a bunch of 78 rpm records, and saying, “Listen to these.” Among other people, Basie and Ellington were on those records.
I also started on a little accordion when I was about four, switched to piano when I was five, and took piano lessons every week for about 10 years, playing recitals, Chopin and all that. In the midst of all that, when I was about 10 years old, I took up trombone in grade school and played it until I was 17 or 18. When I was about 17,1 started playing drums in a high school big band. It was just a bunch of pretty talented guys who got together and copied charts off records. At the time, I was playing trombone, but one week the drummer couldn’t make it to rehearsal. I always had a fancy for the drums, especially the ride cymbal, so I just sat down and played time. Our drummer wasn’t very good, so I was probably making the band feel better than he did. I never took any drum lessons. I just kept fooling with it. I started with the ride cymbal, then went on to the hi-hat, got a little kick here and there on the bass drum, moved a little with my left hand, and kept working at it. I basically learned from records.
I always had an affinity for drums, but I never really got turned on to drums until I saw Stan Kenton’s band in 1955. Mel Lewis was the drummer. The first thing that really hit me right between the eyes was that ride cymbal. That was the first thing I heard, and I kept hearing that burning ride cymbal. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind.
I’ll tell you about the guy who really taught me music. His name is Bob Phillips. To Indianapolis musicians he’s like the guru/sage/teacher. He taught all of us just about everything we know. You can graduate from Indiana University or from Bob Phillips. He’s into everything. I believe he had the world’s foremost collection of chamber music.
When I was in the eighth grade, I was in a contest playing trombone. I was supposed to play the simplified version of “Ave Maria” in Bb , but my accompanist didn’t show up. This old guy—Bob Phillips—was sitting in this classroom, looking for new, young talent. When they called my name to perform, I said, “Well, my accompanist is not here. I can’t play.” Bob asked, “What are you playing?” I showed him the sheet music, and he said, “Well, I’ll play for you.” We went up there and faked it. He played a little jazz lick in there, real quick, and I responded with a little jazz slur on the trombone. Here we were doing this in “Ave Maria.” Anyhow, I won second prize.
Bob invited me to play trombone in his “B” band on Saturday mornings. He taught all of us how to play in the ensemble, and he had a beautiful way of teaching figures. First of all, it was the real thing. There was no time for mistakes in reading. He made you play as if you were on a national television show, even when you were just a little kid. He wanted it out there and he wanted it right now.
MD: What was his reaction when someone did make a mistake?
John: He’d stop the band, single you out and make you feel terrible, right in front of everybody. And he’d never compliment you, week after week. Then, when you were just about fed up with him, he’d com- pliment you highly in front of everybody. Boy, you’d feel like a million bucks.
He never had drums at rehearsals. He didn’t believe in it. He’d say, “The band ought to swing by itself.” I’m very grateful for everything I’ve learned from him. In addition to the jazz ensemble, we’d play all kinds of classical literature, like trombone trios and quintets. He’d take us to perform in brass choirs at different churches and things, and we always played great material. Bob wasn’t playing this music just because a congregation wanted it. He was doing it to further good music.
MD: When your father took you to see big bands, did you ever have the opportunity to speak to any of the musicians?
John: No. I’m forty-three years old now. I always liked Duke and the bands from the actual big band era, but I didn’t really get lit up until I heard Kenton’s band, and the bands that were on the radio in the post-big band era in the ’50s. What lit me up about what we called “modern” big bands was that they didn’t use much vibrato in their horns, and their voicings were different. Their voicings and harmonies were more daring, especially Stan Kenton. Those big bands played their tones real straight, whereas all the big bands in the ’40s used a lot of vibrato. So, I really got turned on when I heard that clean, straight modern sound.
MD: Did any of the small jazz groups in the ’60s have an effect on you?
John: Yeah. The real groundwork is small-group playing. Then you get into the big band itself. But I was still a big band nut. When I was 16 or 17, I was into big bands and classical music. I had friends—really good musicians—who were always trying to turn me on to small groups. And if a small group was really swinging hard with a bebopper in there, I loved that. Most jazz musicians are into small groups more than big bands. I really started getting into small groups like Miles’ on the ‘Round Midnight album, and especially Kind Of Blue with Jimmy Cobb on it. That was a great album—a classic. But the person who really lit me up in small group playing was Coltrane. I like that harmonic thing he was into. I have as much of a harmonic interest as I do an interest in rhythm and melody. Coltrane made me smile.
MD: After you graduated high school, you went to study at North Texas State.
John: Yeah. 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.
But I went down to North Texas State, and right away, I found out that I didn’t want to go to class. I just hung out down there, got into a couple of bands, and met a lot of really great players, like Marvin Stamm, who later on got me jobs. Then I got a call to play trombone in a road band that was starting up in Shreveport, Louisiana. Once again, the drummer had to leave, so I took over on drums.
MD: And the first name band you were with was Ralph Marterie?
John: I came home to Indianapolis first and played nightclub shows. Then I joined his band and went to Chicago for rehearsals. Marterie was a tyrant. He was from that old school, but he had a good swinging dance band. The whole book was great. All the charts were by Bill Potts and Manny Albam. Ralph wasn’t afraid to play fast tempos or anything. So, you lose on one end and gain on the other.
MD: When and how did you learn to read drum charts?
John: 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 leadline 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.
MD: How do you feel about charts that have parts written for all four limbs?
John: 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.
MD: In a 1972 interview, you said that you once had aspirations to be a studio musician. Did you want to be a studio drum- mer, or were you considering breaking into the studios on piano or trombone?
John: In 1963 I made a decision. ‘played piano, trombone and drums. I felt that I should stick with one. I did not feel that 1 should give up the others, but professionally I should stick with one. So I made a decision to stay with drums.
I grew up in an era when the studio scene was all jazz, particularly what was coming out of New York and L.A. So my aspiration was to be a studio jazz drummer. By 1968, the studio scene had switched over to rock so much that I wasn’t interested anymore.
MD: Did rock ‘n’ roll influence you at all?
John: Rock ‘n’ roll started when I was in high school. I liked some of it. I thought Fats Domino was real. But most of it— especially the white rock ‘n’ roll—as musicians, we just thought it was a funny little fad. We didn’t really put it up or down. We went about our business playing what we considered real music, and let the kids get into the rock ‘n’ roll.
Back then, rock ‘n’ roll was just part of what you would hear on the radio. Disc jockeys had their own programs and could do their own thing—even the AM disc jockeys. It was great. They would play what was current in all areas of music, not just rock.
MD: What about the Beatles and the rock music that emerged in the ’60s?
John: It didn’t phase me a bit. To this day, I still consider most of it—not all—pretty naive and lacking in depth. I kept an open mind to it, though. When I was a professional drummer in the early to mid-’60s, I always had to keep up on the latest thing. It was true that jazz was our base, but if a new thing came out, we learned it. When rock really started hitting with hard rock, acid rock and everything else, I kept an open mind to it. I lived in San Francisco during the acid days. I lived with the hippies out there. I played in a couple of acid bands. They were actually on acid. I wasn’t. I was just slugging away a beat for them. They were freaking out, and I was just putting in my time.
Then one day I said, “I’ve been at this rock thing for seven years. I still don’t really hear anything happening in this music for what I’m looking for.” I wasn’t judging it for anybody else but myself. I said, “It’s just not in that music for me.” So I gently closed the door, and I’ve never opened it again.
I have always liked harmony and chords. That’s why I liked Coltrane and Kenton so much. A harmonic sensitivity separates the pros from the amateurs. In rock bands, all they know is triads, if that. The bass is pile driving the root, and that’s about it. They don’t have any voicings; they’re not into harmony. Harmony is the color of music, and it’s highly sophisticated. The way many rock cats get their color is through new gadgets on the amplifiers. Most refined musicians—if they’re looking for color—will do it within the harmony structure.
MD: John, you’re sounding like Mel Lewis.
John: I’m calling it like I see it. I will say that, in the rock world, Frank Zappa is a fine, complete musician whom I respect highly. He’s a man who understands the intricate workings of harmony. Crosby, Stills & Nash had wonderful harmony. It was simple, but it was so smooth.
I liked some of the hard rockers. But the very thing I like about hard rock bored me after a while, because that’s all it was—just that one, slamming thing. I like it strong, too, but if that’s all you do, it can be deadening rather than enlightening. The cats I liked more than the rockers were the funk cats, like Harvey Mason, and I really love the original James Brown music. I can listen to good funk all day. I also love the true blues cats like B.B. King. Their harmonies really make you feel the blues. They know how to keep it simple and what to leave out. That’s not the same as playing simplistic harmonies because you don’t know harmony in the first place. I can hardly regard many of the big names in rock as musicians because of that, although it’s kind of nice that that type of music came along, because it’s a type of music that non-musicians can play. You can’t play classical music or real jazz without some genuine talent. But even the nice farmer boys across the road started a heavy metal rock band and worked a lot. They aren’t musicians in any sense of the word. So it’s nice that they got to play their instruments.
My only gripe is that this form of music has pulled the wool over the public’s ears to higher forms of music in this country, and the wonderful types of folk music the world over. I’m not trying to abolish rock at all. I’m just saying that there are vistas of music beyond rock that are never heard or even thought about.
MD: You took a year off from playing to go on a world-study tour. What was that all about?
John: 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.
MD: You joined Woody Herman’s Herd in ’67 and left about one year before your world-study trip. Did you feel comfortable in Woody’s band?
John: I loved it 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. We were very compatible personally. I loved the guy. His name was Carl Pruitt. He died recently.
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.
MD: Did you make any recordings with Woody Herman?
John: I did one record called Live At Monterey: Concerto For Herd on the Verve label. The concerto was written by Bill Holman. It’s a great work—a testimony to Bill Holman’s genius. Somebody ought to re-release it.
MD: Did you ever speak to Woody about any of the other great drummers who played with him?
John: He loved Dave Tough. He wouldn’t down trod anybody else, because he had some great drummers, but Dave Tough was always the magic in his eyes. I know Woody loved Don Lamond and Jake Hanna. He loved all those guys. Jake Hanna was probably my favorite.
I always felt that my scene with Woody was a training ground—like I never really did him justice. It’s almost like I should have come back later on. Then I would’ve played the hell out of the band. I was really cutting my teeth, and my head was in a funny place because I wanted to be a studio drummer. The only reason I was in Woody’s band—although I loved big bands—was to get credits to go to L.A. and be a studio drummer. See, being a studio drummer is the big dream. Nobody wants to play in front of people anymore. They all want what they call the “romance” of studio life. I found out that it isn’t all that romantic.
MD: How did you get the drum chair in Kenton’s band?
John: When I came back from India I was loose, didn’t have any attachments, didn’t care about anything, and didn’t have the ambition to be a studio drummer. I was back in Indianapolis, playing some gigs, hanging out with my friends, and having a good time, I wasn’t depressed. For the first time in my life, probably, I felt real loose, relaxed, and I was playing better. Then somebody told me that Kenton was going on the road again. I knew Stan, very slightly, from years ago. He was going to have me on the band in ’63. I told Kenton’s friend to let Stan know that I would be angry if he didn’t ask me to go on the road with him. I got the call.
MD: Did you feel comfortable right away in Stan’s band?
John: 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.
MD: Would you agree that Mel Lewis is your main influence in big band drumming?
John: Oh, by all means. I love the rest of them too. I’ve been listening to Mel since ’55. I took up the drums because of Mel. I don’t understand a guy like him. He’s like perfect, yet he plays loose, relaxed and natural. All of us have natural qualities, but Mel is a stone natural. He’s always been real good to me. I call Mel about once a year, and always learn a lot when I do.
MD: Mel’s always had a fantastic, deep sound to his drums. You do too.
John: 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.
MD: When drums are tuned for that low sound, don’t you have to sacrifice something?
John: 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 tom-tom 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.
MD: Did your drumset change from Billy Maxted through Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and now the Blue Wisp Big Band?
John: 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, 8 x 12 and 14 x 14 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.
MD: Can you give me a listing, and your assessment of the recordings you did with Stan Kenton?
John: Well, Stan Kenton Today: Recorded Live In London was the last record I made, just before I left the band. The recording job was all messed up. They didn’t bring any baffling for the drums, and they just couldn’t control the sound of the drums in that ringing hall. So I had to play with a cramped touch to cool out the sound of the drums. The drums sound too strong on that record anyway, but you can imagine what it would have been like if I’d been going full tilt.
MD: But, in general, that album was well received.
John: I know. I’ve never understood it. When I don’t like what I’ve done, everybody likes it, and vice versa. The first record we made was Live At Redlands. That was pretty good. The recording job was so-so. The album Live At Brigham Young is the best one for the sound of the band and the sound of the drums. Bill Putnam recorded it. He’s a master.
MD: Redlands and Brigham Young were issued on Kenton’s Creative World records. Didn’t Creative World also release a small-group recording under your own name?
John: That was an electronic group I had in Indianapolis. After I left Kenton, I wanted to live in Indianapolis and we needed to work, so I started a group. Indianapolis isn’t New York. You wind up working the Hilton and Holiday Inn lounges, and we had to do some Top-40 things that we didn’t really want to do. But our vocalist, Mary Ann Moss, had a way of picking tunes that we could live with as musicians, and we also played jazz.
But I found out that it didn’t work to do both rock and jazz like that. You have a group of jazz musicians who are just trying to work. They figure that they’ll play some pop stuff so that they can get gigs, and then they’ll play some jazz along with it so they can get their jollies. What happens is that you don’t get either one. You don’t attract the people who want to hear pop, because they don’t want to hear jazz. And the jazz people sure as hell aren’t going to sit there and listen to the pop. It just didn’t work. Now, maybe somebody else can prove me wrong, but I haven’t seen it work yet. It was a wonderful group, but the electronics got to my ears and I had to disband it. I think we did that bag about as well as you’re going to hear it.
Many jazz musicians—myself included—after much experience with electronic sound production have made a decision to keep the acoustic sound as a home base. We prefer that electronic technology, as impressive and current as it may be, take a backseat to our love of playing acoustically. This is classic and timeless. Titillating gadgetry will have its say, but it can only go so far. In the end, acoustic sound dives far deeper—right to the soul.
MD: I’ve heard many favorable comments about the Kenton clinics. What were you expected to do there, and how did you feel about doing them?
John: 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?
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?
MD: The word technique gets thrown around quite a bit. Define good technique, and do you feel that good technique is all that’s necessary to become a good drummer?
John: It’s pretty hard to disassociate the two. 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. I listen to something I did in high school and it’s the same old thing. But today I have a different perspective on it. I’m more conscious of it. I dig as deep as 1 can now.
MD: Are you aware of any means—outside of normal drum teaching methods—that could teach a technically good student how to feel?
John: 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.
MD: I gather that you don’t feel too favorably about drum method books?
John: 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.
MD: Should drummers study harmony and melody as well as rhythm?
John: Sure. 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.
MD: You’re also an excellent brush player, and you’ve done some nice work on the drumset with mallets. How did you develop the ability to express yourself with brushes and mallets?
John: Brushes are beautiful. 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.
I don’t think of the mallets as demanding any specific technique. I use matched grip with the mallets. Basically, with sticks I use the traditional grip. I get much more subtle nuances with the traditional grip. If I’m doing a big concert drum solo where I have some time, and I’m not worrying about trading fours or song form, when I want to create a sound solo, I almost always go to the mallets first. Man, what you can do with mallets, especially with sounds and cymbals.
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.
MD: On the Blue Wisp recordings, you sound as if you’re playing lighter than you did with Kenton.
John: Well, playing 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.
MD: After you left Kenton, you gave up life on the road?
John: 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.
MD: 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.
John: 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.
MD: How did the Blue Wisp Big Band get started?
John: Well, we’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.
MD: Would you encourage musicians in other areas to organize big bands?
John: 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. The Blue Wisp Band is marvelous. Different guys take care of different aspects of the band. 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.
Distribution of Blue Wisp’s albums is still growing. If you can’t find them in your area, write to MoPro Records, 5950 Beech Dell Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45238.