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The Blue Wisp Big Band

Founded in January, 1980 by drummer John Von Ohlen and trumpeter Don Johnson, the Blue Wisp Big Band got its start in and its name from the late Blue Wisp Jazz Club. Von Ohlen, a native of Indianapolis, moved to the Cincinnati area after many years on the road playing with world class jazz orchestras, most notably those of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman.

After hearing all of the fine musicians in the area, he felt there was a need to form a group because most of them “weren’t playing any jazz, which is the reason they started playing in the first place.” He felt the desire to start a “world-class big band and wanted to put it in a tavern, a beer joint.”

Don Johnson, who had been on the Cincinnati scene for years, suggested which instrumentalists should play in the band. Von Ohlen states, “Don was the horn connection.” Pianist Steve Schmidt and bassist Michael Sharfe were already playing with Von Ohlen at the Blue Wisp, in the Steve Schmidt Trio, Wednesday through Saturday nights, so the rhythm section was easily formed.

Von Ohlen remembers approaching Paul and Marjean Wisby, the original owners of the Blue Wisp, with the idea, “Wednesday is a slow night. Why don’t we bring in a big band and blow the roof off the place. It worked real good.”

Since its inception, the Blue Wisp Big Band has been the top jazz orchestra in Cincinnati. The hard bop-oriented big band started recording in 1981: first, an LP sponsored by the Cincinnati television station, WKRC and then four for the Mopro label, founded by Fred and Helen Morr, in the 1980’s. The Mopro LP’s were reissued in the mid -’90s on two CDs on the California label, Sea Breeze, with one of the sets recorded in Los Angeles during a West Coast tour in 1984. Through the devoted and hard work of Helen Morr, the LP’s were distributed around the country and Europe, garnering notice, good reviews and airplay around the world. Among the group’s more notable members were trumpeter Tim Hagans and bassist Lynn Seaton.

The band continued to perform at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club in Cincinnati on Wednesday nights until its closure in the summer of 2014.

After a six month tenure at Japp’s Annex in downtown Cincinnati, the band currently performs on Tuesday evenings at the Pirate’s Den in Westwood from 8:30 until 11:00.


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