J.C. Combs: Leaving campus in high percussive style

12:00:05 PM CDT - Wednesday, April 04, 2007

By Shannon Littlejohn

The trouble with trying to write some semblance of J.C. Combs' career story is that he's always doing something cool in the moment.

But save this date: April 22. That's the bonus concert in honor of the professor of percussion's retirement this year after 36 years at WSU.

The concert came about as word spread in the jazz and percussion worlds that Combs was planning to retire. Famous alumni and friends began calling, wanting to come play for their mentor and peer.

J.C. Combs and gourd tree
Photo by Roni Ayalla
Always looking for ways to keep his concerts interesting, percussion professor J.C. Combs readies a gourd tree he’s attempting to build for the April 16 Percussion Ensemble concert. Combs, who plans to retire this year, is trying to build some of the odd intruments invented by famous composer Harry Partch, who had decided to step outside the traditional thinking about octaves.
So far at least 15 of them will perform in Combs' honor the Sunday after the Wichita Jazz Festival, including his sons, Cory and Matthew Combs. Several others will be in the audience.

Meanwhile, though, Combs is deep in carpentry for the April 16 Percussion Ensemble that will serve as a raucous kick-off to the annual Wichita Jazz Festival the rest of that week. Guest artits Andy Narell, Dave Samuels, Ed Soph and Mike Spiro will perfom at this concert.

"We've done pretty unusual things over the years," said Combs of his percussion concerts. "It has made our reputation for being, some people have said, fearless."

It's not a surprise, then, that Combs would spend the past few weeks building odd instruments invented by Harry Partch, a famous composer who died in 1974 after a life of pursuing "just intonation."

"Partch proposed a return to an ancient Greek — and perhaps earlier — system called just or pure intonation," said Combs. "He also felt that everyone had to be able to dance and sing and perform, all simultaneously."

With just intonation, Partch stepped outside of traditional thinking that an octave should contain 12 chromatic steps. He had 43.

"So, as he put it, he was seduced into carpentry," said Combs. "He ended up building all his own instruments. And they are instruments that he had to name — like the boo, the spoils of war, the chromelodeon."

Combs is attempting to build four of Partch's instruments. Meanwhile, his students have enthusiastically embraced the unorthodox composer, researching the music library and shopping on amazon.com and eBay to find albums, biographies and other pieces of Partch's romantic life as a hobo.

"You can go online and virtual-play these instruments because they've been recorded," said Combs.

To try them, search for "Harry Partch instruments" at the Web site musicmavericks.publicradio.org. Such efforts have fueled Combs' professional career and helped keep his graduates and other musician friends connected to the university.

"He is not only a fantastic percussionist but he possesses one of the most creatively fertile imaginations on the planet," according to Matt Wilson, a Combs protégé who will be on campus with his Arts and Crafts Quartet for the jazz festival double-header and stay for the bonus concert.

"We played percussion works featuring a wide array of strange components," Wilson said of his time as Combs' student. "Pinball machines, cloggers, bowlers and professional wrestlers all were standard fare."

Combs said of retiring, "It's one of those things where I still love what I'm doing. And maybe I could continue to love it for another 10 years but yet maybe there's a time when you step back and not stop but do something else."

He already consults at universities about fundraising and promotion, and might do more of that, he said. He'll take more time to visit his musician sons Cory, in San Francisco, and Matt, in Nashville.

And he'll definitely stay involved with the Boys & Girls Club, especially the samba band that he put his heart into after his oldest son, Chris, died in a boating accident in 2002.

He has a tight group of five WSU percussion students who volunteer with the Boys & Girls Club, too.

"What I'm really trying to do is get students involved in public service outside of the institution," he said. "It's something I didn't do. I sat here for 30 years, driving by that place. And after Chris died, I was just adrift. I pulled in there one day and said I want to volunteer to do music. I'm still doing it six years later."

In fact, his next project involves partnering on a video with Cessna Aircraft on the Boys & Girls Club's percussive music programs, which have expanded to include a steel band, an African group and the young Lollipop Kids, in addition to the samba band.

To reserve tickets for the Percussion Ensemble concert at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 16, in Miller Concert Hall, call 978-3233. The bonus concert will be at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 22, in Miller Concert Hall. Tickets for each concert are $6 with discounts available.

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