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About Larry Combs
Larry Combs is one of the world's leading orchestral clarinetists, is active in chamber music, and plays on the busy Chicago jazz scene.
He began to play clarinet in Charleston at the age of ten and by the time he was thirteen had a strong enough technique and reputation that he was regularly asked by the Charleston Symphony to play with them when an additional clarinet was needed. By the time he was sixteen, he was the orchestra's principal clarinetist.
His teenage years were not primarily devoted to classical music, for he played wherever he could: county fairs, visiting circus bands, dance bands, and jazz sessions. While still in high school he had a clarinet quintet, which entered the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, a nationwide television program. The group placed second on the show, after a one-legged tap dancer.
In the summers he attended the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan. This chance to work with professional musicians and the most talented musicians from across the United States in his age group led him to choose music as his career. In autumn of 1957, he entered the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
At Rochester he was a pupil of Stanley Hasty, a leading teacher of the instrument. His studies with Hasty were wide ranging, covering interpretation of various styles and genres of music and included attending each weekly concert of the Rochester Philharmonic with a view to observing and noting how Hasty performed in each of the orchestral works presented.
Upon graduation from Eastman, Combs joined the New Orleans Philharmonic as third clarinet/bass clarinet player. This employment was interrupted by his conscription for military service. He was in the Army for three years. After his recruit training he was posted to West Point, New York, and assigned to be a member of the United States Military Academy Band. He remained at that post for the remainder of his army service.
West Point's location a few miles up the Hudson River from New York City enabled him to travel there every other week for continuing studies with clarinetist Leon Russianoff. The New Orleans Philharmonic welcomed him back at the conclusion of his enlistment, this time as the orchestra's principal (solo) clarinetist. In 1968, Combs became Principal of the Montréal Symphony Orchestra.
In 1974 he joined the clarinet section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, then as ever since generally considered the top of the orchestral profession in the United States, if not the world. In 1978 the orchestra's music director appointed him Principal Clarinet. As such, Combs can be heard playing on two decades' worth of Chicago Symphony Orchestra records in virtually every important solo clarinet passage.
He is married to Gail Williams, a French horn player in the Chicago Symphony. He, Williams, and other members of the orchestra have formed the Chicago Chamber Musicians, a group of fourteen instrumentalists, predominantly members of the CSO, who form a pool for the presentation of regular chamber music concerts for varying groupings of instruments. The CSO's music director, Daniel Barenboim, occasionally joined them as pianist. Others who have joined in concerts with the CCM include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, conductor-pianist Christoph Eschenbach, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Smithsonian Chamber Players.
Combs is also a founder and member of the Combs-Novak Sextet, a jazz group that frequently plays in clubs in Chicago and in 1999 was a headliner at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Chicago music commentators liken his sound and fluency to that of jazz great Benny Goodman.
Combs plays a LeBlanc "Opus" model clarinet.