Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
My favorite way to discover an obscure Chicago band is to stumble upon a release I hadn’t known existed at a thrift shop or record store, then research the artist—and if I can, I contact them to get the full story. I did all three to learn about uber-musicianly jazz-fusion group the Ashby Ostermann Alliance, whose 1979 demo cassette I found at the Village Discount on Western and Milwaukee. (It’s my most-visited thrift store in the city, since it’s closest to my pad of many years—I’ve missed it during the stay-at-home order!) Upon investigation, I was happy to find that the boys had recently re-formed, cut a reunion album, and put up a website—and I was bemused to hear that they barely recall the existence of this demo.
Keyboardist and horn player Dennis Ostermann was born in Chicago in 1951 and raised in Brookfield and Lombard. The band’s other namesake, guitarist Vince Ashby, was born in Charleston, Illinois, in 1957. Ostermann started on piano at ten, though at that age he was mostly studying French horn, and Ashby began piano lessons at five, switching to guitar at 13. Between them they loved classical music, complex rock (Deep Purple, Brian Auger, Keith Emerson’s bands), and jazz-inflected crossover groups (Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra). They met through Ashby’s brother Kevin while Ostermann was attending Eastern Illinois University in Charleston and performing with his group MotherFox. “I remember the first time I met Vince—he had a Sunn Sceptre with a sunburst Les Paul in an old dirty barn pointing west, blowing out decibels that were entertaining to the neighbors two or three miles away,” says Ostermann. “I thought it was going to be something interesting, and it was.”
The Ashby Ostermann Alliance began in 1977 with a jam session in that barn in Charleston that included Ashby, Ostermann, bassist John D’Arco, and drummer Bubba Bryant (who left before the group started gigging). The tunes “Nightstorm” and “Universal Melody” began to take shape there, and late that year Ashby moved to Chicago to pursue the group. Cicero native Jim Massoth, who’d been playing saxophone with pianist Marshall Vente, was also in Ostermann’s group Jazmin, and Ostermann introduced him to Ashby. Musically the band began to jell, but the lineup was still unstable. D’Arco played only a couple gigs before moving on—they had to audition several bassists before finding Indianapolis native J.T. Bromley in late ’78.
Ashby, Ostermann, Massoth, and Bromley became the core of the AOA, which went through drummers the way Spinal Tap went through keyboardists (and drummers, come to think of it). Eventually Ostermann found the bright side in the situation, deciding that the constant turnover “kept things fresh”—he didn’t have much choice, since in their seven-year original run AOA had at least a dozen different drummers (including acclaimed jazzman Paul Wertico, before his 17-year stint in the Pat Metheny Group). Their first proper gig was in a coffeehouse at the College of DuPage, where they shared the bill with Jim Belushi. Early in their history, they also played other universities, including Morton College in Cicero and Trine University in Angola, Indiana, as well as more conventional music venues such as B’Ginnings (in Schaumburg), Kimball Street Bridge Club (in Elgin), and famous Chicago reggae hotspot the Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary. (I’d never known the Wild Hare’s whole handle till now, and it might be the best venue name I’ve ever heard.)
In 1980 the AOA secured management from Diane Daniel, and they started gigging much more frequently, at Chicago clubs (Tuts, Wise Fools Pub, On Broadway, Biddy Mulligan’s) and all over the suburbs and beyond (Harry Hope’s in Cary, the Uprising in Dekalb, Durty Nellie’s in Palatine, the Great Escape in Carbondale, Crows Mill School in Springfield, Charlotte’s Web in Rockford, and many more). The AOA never strayed far from their home base in Chicago, but they pummeled the local college circuit too, playing the likes of Northwestern University, McHenry Junior College, Harper Community College, UIUC, and Northern Illinois University. They got booked twice for ChicagoFest, first in 1981 (Ashby says they almost got cited for inciting a riot when they attempted an encore) and again in ’82 (sharing the bill with Tito Puente). They also hit Summerfest in 1982 and ’83, Waukegan Fest in ’82 and ’83, and the Festival of Lights in Aurora in ’82.
The AOA recorded the 1979 demo at a studio in Lombard whose name they no longer remember, and on December 8, 1980—the day John Lennon was shot and killed—they started sessions for what till recently was their only album. They tracked the self-titled LP (released on their own Divide label, whose name combined letters of Ashby, Ostermann, and Daniel’s first names) in three days for around $1,800 at Hedden West in Schaumburg with legendary producer Iain Burgess. At that point, their drummer was Ty von Jenef, who’s since passed away.
Both the demo I have and the self-titled 1981 LP feature versions of the the spacey, near-psychedelic “Mongol Sunrise” and the complex pieces “Nightstorm” and “Tidebreaker”—which show off Ashby’s sick tone and virtuosic playing and Ostermann’s serious jazz chops. The Windy City had a vibrant jazz-fusion scene in the 70s and early 80s, with the likes of Streetdancer and Proteus (the AOA gigged with the latter, and both have been SHoCM subjects over the years). The Ashby Ostermann Alliance led the pack, in this writer’s opinion, but by 1984 the group were all but done. “Things began to die down, lives change,” says Ostermann. The members soon “decided to pursue other interests.”
Massoth now produces and engineers at Crystall Recorders Studios in Lombard, and he’s still active on the Windy City music scene. Ostermann went on to perform with Juggular, and in 2013 he produced a CD with his band Brailledog in 2013 (Bromley appears on the album, as does present-day AOA drummer Scott Kohler). Currently he’s mostly a church musician and records with his group the Gojo Ensemble. In 1985 Ashby produced an EP called Hollywood Remains, and in 2009 he released the country-rock CD Kinda Sorta Maybe under the name Buck Buick & the Wildcats. In 2016, with the 40th anniversary of the AOA’s formation coming up, he was inspired to get the group back together for a reunion, and after the four original core members recruited Kohler to drum, they recorded new and previously unreleased tunes from their heyday at Ostermann’s studio in Batavia. That material is collected on the 2018 album Unfinished Business, released on the band’s own And Conquer label, the successor to Divide (get it?). The AOA sound like they’ve picked right up where their debut record left off 37 years ago, so this SHoCM tale has a happy ending! v
- The Vince Ashby composition “Nightstorm,” from the Ashby Ostermann Alliance’s 1981 self-titled debut
- The Dennis Ostermann tune “Mongol Sunrise,” from the same album
- A track from the Ashby Ostermann Alliance’s 2018 reunion record