John Von Ohlen On Indianapolis Music ‘Genius’ Bob Phillips

SKF NOTE: I want to correct my original post intro. I left Modern Drummer as a full time managing editor in October 1983, and continued freelance writing for MD for a few years after, including this John Von Ohlen interview. Having digitized and re-listened to the Von Ohlen interview tape, I know I conducted this interview from my home phone. The rest of my original intro is accurate.

John wanted to talk about Indianapolis music teacher extraordinnaire Bob Philips, “[T]he guy who really taught me music,” John told me.

So here , along with the transcript from the interview, is the audio from the interview.


[SKF NOTE: From the transcript of my interview with John Von Ohlen, published in the March 1985 Modern Drummer. This interview was done by phone. I was in my MD office. John was home in Indiana. My introduction to John’s playing, years earlier, was through Stan Kenton’s Live in London album. Mel Lewis, who I had befriended by the time of this interview, spoke very highly of John. I happened to be in Mel’s apartment for one of his birthdays when he received a Happy Birthday phone call from Von Ohlen. “He always calls me on my birthday,” Mel said.

And prior to this interview I had listened a few times to John’s Blue Wisp Big Band albums. A terrific big band.]

John Von Ohlen
John Von Ohlen John Von Ohlen

John Von Ohlen: 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 teaches in a very unorthodox way.

Bob invited me to play trombone in his “B” band on Saturday morning. And I went there every Saturday morning. 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 shit. 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. We ha no time for mistakes in reading. No time for playing wimpy. He wanted it out there and he wanted it right now. He’d say, “If we wanted it tomorrow we’d have rehearsal tomorrow.”

John Von Ohlen
John Von Ohlen John Von Ohlen

Scott K Fish: What was his reaction when someone did make a mistake?

JVO: He’d stop the band, single you out, and make you feel like shit. 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 compliment 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 to him for everything I learned from him. He was doing it to further good music.

SKF: After you graduated high school you went to study at North Texas State.

JVO: Yeah. I was never into school. It was bondage. 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. None of my favorite players went to school.

Bob said, “You don’t need to go to school. Just start working. You already know what you want to do.”

But, I went down to North Texas State and, right away, I found out that I didn’t want to go to class.


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