Despite the continuing popularity of Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli, and Gypsy swing, Alix Combelle has yet to be recognized worldwide for his steadfast contributions to the development and establishment of that tradition. An accomplished saxophonist, clarinetist, arranger, and bandleader, Combelle was a vital figure in the development of European jazz during the 1930s who made dozens of recordings with Reinhardt and members of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, and it is with Reinhardt that his reputation was established. Unlike Django, Combelle adhered stubbornly to straightforward swing and does not seem to have felt it necessary to modernize into the style and methodology of bop. Most of his best recordings date from the years 1935-1943 and were released on the appropriately named Swing label.
Born in Paris on June 15, 1912, he was the son of François Combelle, a classical saxophonist and featured soloist with the Band of the Republican Guard. Alix began his performing career as a drummer during the late '20s and developed his woodwind chops in the orchestra pits of Parisian theaters and with Armenian bandleader Krikor "Gregor" Kelekian under the mantle of Gregor et Ses Gregoriens in 1932-1933. He also worked in bands led by trumpeter Arthur Briggs and violinist Michel Warlop, and with Patrick et Son Orchestre, a group led by trombonist Guy Paquinet. Beginning with a historic multinational session led by Coleman Hawkins in 1937, Combelle's unwavering devotion to jazz brought him into close contact with many visiting and emigrating U.S. swing masters, including multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter, clarinetist Danny Polo & His Swing Stars, pianist Freddy Johnson, vocalist Adelaide Hall, and trumpeter Bill Coleman, in whose orchestra he worked alongside Argentine guitarist Oscar Alemán. He also made a number of fine recordings with groups led by trumpeter Philippe Brun, gigged with altoist Andre Ekyan, and backed popular French vocalists Jean Sablon and Charles Trenet.
Combelle visited the U.S. twice in 1937-1938. Tommy Dorsey was impressed enough to make him an offer but the Parisian opted for a return to home turf, where he joined an orchestra led by pianist Ray Ventura. A session with Reinhardt that took place in December 1940 featured Combelle shoulder to shoulder with fellow saxophonists Christian Wagner and Hubert Rostaing. After the outbreak of war, he led a cooperative big band known as Le Jazz de Paris, and stayed at the helm for several years before turning it over to drummer Jerry Mengo. Somehow, Combelle and his partners in swing managed to continue performing jazz during the nightmare years of the Occupation, despite their obvious association with Jews, African-Americans, and Gypsies, three ethnic groups singled out by Nazi ideologists as racially inferior. The simplest expedient involved camouflaging the titles of jazz standards, but it took a lot more than that to fool or deter the Gestapo. And Combelle was definitely a cultural "Enemy of the Reich," for his African-American heroes included Chu Berry, Herschel Evans, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, Jimmie Lunceford, and Count Basie.
In the years following the war, Combelle led a series of big bands and worked again with Bill Coleman as well as Buck Clayton, Lionel Hampton, and Jonah Jones. He does not seem to have adapted very readily to the early modern styles of bop and cool jazz, although he did sit in with Stan Kenton in 1953. His son Philippe "Fifi" Combelle (b. 1939) sat in with his father's band playing tenor and bass saxophone in 1957; soon thereafter, the younger Combelle switched permanently to drumming. Combelle Sr. made his final recording as a leader in 1960, became the owner of a nightclub in 1963, and passed away in the Parisian suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie on March 2, 1978. ~ arwulf arwulf