A jazz big band is quite a thing, something unto itself. It’s an organic unit — a molecular structure, so to speak — that happened to form over time and makes sense, as does a piano trio or a string quartet. At a certain point in the evolution of jazz, four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, piano, bass and drums just made musical sense and came into being.
The big band can shout, holler and hit you in the gut but it can also whisper and gently caress you. There are many color combinations and it is like a symphony orchestra in that way, only earthier in sound and intent. Rhythmically, it swings, can be funky and is always exciting!
The Blue Wisp Big Band (BWBB) is still exciting after all of these years and I have never gotten tired of playing in it. We are lucky to have this band in our city and I’m happy that it has been an attraction to people since it started in January of 1980. Most of the original members are still in the band. A few have moved away, a few retired, and a couple have joined the great big band in the sky.
Soon after its inception a record label formed around the BWBB, Mopro Records. It was created by the generous-hearted couple, Fred and Helen Morr purely from the love of the band and their belief that it deserved to be heard around the country and the world. They funded many albums and Helen made sure they got sent to radio stations and record stores everywhere. As a consequence, the band received glowing reviews from American and European magazines and newspapers. Out of town visitors started coming to hear the BWBB because they heard the band on the radio in their city.
And well-known musicians and arrangers have visited the band and continue to. Early on we had Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett as fans in the audience. The famous Los Angeles drummer, Jeff Hamilton, is a fan and comes to listen and sit in. The world-class arranger Carroll DeCamp wrote some of our earliest charts and soon after, trumpeter/arranger Al Kiger followed suit, both writing for and playing in the band. Grammy-nominated trumpeter Tim Hagans moved to Cincinnati in the early 1980’s and became a member, also writing many great arrangements for the BWBB. This is not to forget our own fine baritone saxophonist, Larry Dickson, who also wrote some of our first charts and continues to do so today. London-based, Frank Griffith sends music for the band as does American Eric Richards, both renowned and top-notch arrangers who love the BWBB.
The band makeup has always been the top players in the city and the region. All of the members have toured with major groups and played all of the biggest shows in town, including the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops orchestras. There have always been great young players - many from the University of Cincinnati (U.C.) College-Conservatory of Music with its strong jazz program attracting quality musicians to our city — to step in on any given night when one of the “first string” players can’t be there. Invariably, a new and exciting chemical reaction occurs with several “subs” in the band.
But even with a high percentage of founding members still in the group, the BWBB has changed a bit in recent times — for the good in many different ways. Two fine, younger but seasoned saxophonists, Brent Gallaher and Jeremy Long have entered the band as have stellar trumpeters, Hank Mautner and Kim Pensyl. The trumpet section is ringing and so are the trombones, with newer additions, Scott Forney and Jeff Owen.
Frequent subs include saxophonists Ben Walkenhauer, Garin Webb and Dan Drees. The wonderful trombonist, Marc Fields is often guesting with the band. And John Zappa, Eric Lechleiter, and Bill Dixon are inspirational subs in the trumpet section. There are many more at the ready who I’m leaving out. But this shows that there is a fluid yet solid chemistry that infuses the Blue Wisp Big Band week to week and keeps it vibrant and current. It remains exciting and fun!
One big change that has recently occurred is the departure of John Von Ohlen, the drummer and founder of the Blue Wisp Big Band. In the spring of this year, John decided that the playing necessary for this band was becoming just the slightest bit out of his grasp, like a top-notch baseball pitcher who feels he has lost just a bit of his “stuff”. His personal standards have always been high and it’s nothing anybody would necessarily notice. But that was his decision and we respect it. We miss his unique feel and sound.
For a number of years a great drummer from Dayton, Jim Leslie, has been filling in for John when he had other engagements. When it came time for John to step down, he considered Jim to be the right man for the job. He gave him his stamp of approval, we asked him, and Jim readily accepted. It is our pleasure and good fortune for he drives the band as it should be driven, having his own personal sound and feel for the band. We are very happy to have Jim Leslie as our new drummer!
We are also happy to have Urban Artifact in Northside as our home, continuing our long-running Wednesday night tradition. This hip, evolving neighborhood is centrally located in close proximity to U.C., Clifton and other core areas as well as being easily accessible from downtown.
Urban Artifact offers its own finely crafted beers, those of other fine breweries and a full variety of liquors, wine, and non-alcoholic drinks. Food is available from many excellent restaurants within walking distance.
We encourage you to have a total experience by coming to Urban Artifact, Northside and feeling the power of the Blue Wisp Big Band!