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Interview: Dr. Joseph Blaha, jazz musician

Jazz . . .You can miss a note and still make it work . . . like life.

I first met Joe through his wife, Sara, who is an author and a client. Sara worked at the library at Roanoke College, my alma mater, for twenty-four years. For sixteen of those years, Joe was the band director and professor of fine arts at the college. I needed a band for an event I was planning, and I was specifically looking for a jazz group.

In Joe's retirement, he gathered a group of musician friends who initially called themselves “Oasis.” But then someone remembered there was already a more famous band named “Oasis.” So, for the time being, the band is known as “Oh! Aces.” Members include Don Wimmer on saxophones and flute, Robb Shipp on trombone, Joe Blaha on piano, Ron Robinson on bass, and Henry Frye on drums. I’ve heard them and they are fabulous! I am sure that each one has an interesting life story, but it was Joe that I recently sat down with at a local coffee shop.

Dr. Blaha started playing the piano at age seven because his brother, who was fifteen years older than Joe, was an excellent pianist. Joe saw how much everyone loved his brother and how much he made people smile. His father played violin and his grandfather was a tuba player. Music was always a part of his environment. When Joe began taking lessons, he quickly realized that it would take forever for him to catch up with his brother. So, he switched to low brass instruments—trombone, baritone, and tuba. However, he kept up his piano lessons because his mother said, “You’ll be glad you did.” She was right. Joe discovered later in life that, because he was hit by a car on Halloween night in 1957, his jaw was misaligned. No one had mentioned how the broken jaw might impact his trombone performance, but he now suspects that it did in significant ways.

photo from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

Despite the jaw issue, in 1974 he was accepted into The United States Army Band (Pershing’s Own) where he played trombone for three presidents—Nixon, Ford, and Carter—in Washington D.C. He also had the honor to play for Queen Elizabeth II at the White House and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during her 1976 Bicentennial tour.

After leaving the Army, Dr. Blaha became known in academic circles as a music generalist—a jack of all trades. He became an award-winning composer and was inducted into two Rock and Roll Halls of Fame—one in Iowa and another in South Dakota. Spectacle was the name of his honored band.

How did you get into jazz?

"In high school a band needed a trombone player. That is when I was introduced to improv and fell in love with it. The improv of jazz is an art. You miss a C note and you make it work, like life. If you don't miss a note then people will tire of it."

Who is your favorite jazz composer?

"Duke Ellington. I’m especially taken with his ‘three sacred concerts’.”

Why did you choose Oasis as the name of the band?

"The musicians’ job is to take people to another world, a world where our every thirst can be quenched, an oasis of sorts.”

Here is an example of what music can do. Joe was a teacher at San Jose City College in San Jose, California and on October 17, 1989, a 7.1 earthquake shook San Francisco (also known by some as the World Series Earthquake) at 5:04 p.m. The jazz band I was directing had just started rehearsing and wanted to continue rehearsing for an upcoming concert. Even while the earth was still trembling with aftershocks, the band continued rehearsing. We wisely decided to play outside in the courtyard, as it wasn't safe to be indoors. Teachers and students in nearby classes could hear us playing. A week later, an English professor remarked that our music had a real calming effect on all the students. An oasis.”

Dr. Blaha retired from Roanoke College as Associate Professor of Music and Director of Bands in 2018. “Oh! Aces” started with him and Don Wimmer whom he has played with for more than thirty years.

If you are interested in a jazz combo or band for your next event in or near the Roanoke Valley, you can contact Joe by emailing him at


Photo Credit: James Carroll


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