J.C. Combs and the Wisdom of Words and Wrestlers

In 1983, as one door closed to me, another opened in a most unlikely place, Wichita, Kansas. I won’t tell you how long it took me to be able to effortlessly spell “Wichita,” but it was there that I came under the tutelage of Dr. J.C. Combs—one of the blessings of my life. 

At the time I entered Wichita State University as a graduate student, Dr. Combs was enjoying a successful academic and performing career. But like a lucky few of his kind, J.C. was conflicted. He had one foot in the classical world and the other in the avant-garde. If he had more than two feet, they’d have been dipped equally into jazz, vaudeville, country, Elvis, and Bootsy Collins.

As a college percussion professor and a certified cut-up, J.C. despised playing percussion ensemble concerts to mostly empty houses. He thought that much of the contemporary repertoire for percussion was of little interest to the average concertgoer, so he began to create over-the-top percussion events to attract larger audiences. He used theatrical lighting, staging, video projections, actors, dancers, singers, poets, smoke and mirrors, you name it. His collaborations resulted in compositions for percussionists performing with pinball machines, bowlers, cloggers, jugglers, Gospel choirs, a “Velcro” tap dancer (a story for another day), and wrestlers (well, maybe not the kind you would find in Iowa).

“I haven’t seen Iowa people get so excited since the night Frank Gotch and Strangular Lewis lay on the mat for three and a half hours without moving a muscle!”

Mayor Shinn, from The Music Man

Yes, wrestlers. The Wichita Symphony (for which J.C. served as principal timpanist) rehearsed at the Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center in one corner of the building, and in the other corner (so to speak) were professional wrestling matches. There, in the backstage area, he met some of the wrestlers and began hatching a plan for his next big event. They suggested he get in contact with National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) promotor and referee Bob Geigel in Kansas City. J.C. floated his idea about a collaboration to Geigel (a former University of Iowa wrestler and football player) and the project took off from there.

The 1948 University of Iowa Wrestling Team. Bob Geigel back row third from left.

Somehow J.C. persuaded his colleague, Dr. Walter Mays, to compose a work for large percussion ensemble and wrestlers. Combs and Mays had already collaborated successfully on Six Invocations to the Svara Mandala, for which Mays won the Percussive Arts Society Composition Contest (1974), and a Naumburg Recording Award (1975). He had just been nominated for a Pulitzer for his oratorio Voices of the Fiery Wind, but his next major (and most infamous) work was War Games for Extended Percussion and Professional Wrestlers.

In addition to a large battery of standard percussion instruments, the work called for jack hammers, piano played with carpet-covered 2X4s, two drum sets without cymbals, a regulation fight ring, two wrestlers, and a referee. The now legendary work was presented at the 1983 Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I was a performer on that memorable concert. Even in the huge ballroom, the audience was standing room only, and from my position in the ensemble I could see influential percussion teacher and PAS Hall of Fame member Haskell W. Harr, at age 89, standing up from his wheelchair to be able to watch the entire performance. The crowd went wild. It was the talk of PASIC that year, and of many years to come. The 30th Anniversary of PASIC Commemorative Program Book includes a photo of our performance.

Thirty Years of PASIC Commemorative Program Book.

That performance garnered both praise and criticism (cheers and boos in wrestling parlance) but it also secured J.C.’s reputation as “a cross between John Cage and P.T. Barnum,” a characterization made by Dave Samuels. 

One assessment of which J.C. is particularly proud came as the result of a chance encounter with a musician who was well known for his musical opinions. J.C. tells the story of a visit he made to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen around the time of the production of War Games. While strolling around the city, he happened to hear the familiar sounds of a percussion ensemble wafting from an upstairs rehearsal hall. Never a shrinking violet, J.C. talked his way inside to see what was happening, and found himself in the company of Frank Zappa. 

When the mercurial Zappa learned that J.C. was a university percussion teacher, he asked what sort of things he did with the ensemble. Expecting to hear of music by John Cage, Lou Harrison, or—Zappa’s idol—Edgard Varèse, he was surprised when J.C. described the wrestler piece in full detail. When he finished, Zappa said, “That’s the outest [stuff] I’ve ever heard of.”  J.C. knew that if Frank Zappa thought he was “out,” then he must be doing something right. 

“That’s the outest [stuff] I’ve ever heard of.” 

Frank Zappa

In a recent phone conversation with J.C., I told him what a profound experience it was to be with him at WSU during that memorable time: with all the cool, one-of-a-kind projects we did, and how his positive and creative energy led us to so many amazing and memorable experiences. 

But he turned it around on me. To J.C., it was the energy he felt from his students that motivated him. When he got an idea, he was emboldened to pursue it because his students always “took the ball and ran with it.” They not only embraced his (often outrageous) schemes, they added their own ideas along the way. They became part of the creative process. It was this positive energy loop that was responsible for many of the creative projects accomplished by J.C. and his students. 

He said, “I was just plugging into my student’s creativity; the excitement of kids running the show.” That’s when I reminded him of the time one of those “kids” drove a golf cart onto the stage as part of a bit before the ragtime marimba band played. They tested the cart and the stopping distance on the stage (without passengers) but with the full complement of the marimba band on board, the stop was a little too close for comfort for audience members in the first few rows. He laughed and said, “Creative things aren’t always without risk.” He recalled that others were concerned about his productions as well. “I once had a dean ask me if I knew what I was doing? I just said ‘yes’, he said ‘OK,’ and that was it.”

“Creative things aren’t always without risk.”

Creative projects require tremendous physical and mental energy, but possessing that energy doesn’t necessarily promise success if the possessor remains inactive. There must also be a catalyst to set things in motion.  J.C. was the catalyst that jump-started our energy. When participants get excited and on board with the creative process, it tends to self-perpetuate. By definition, this is synergy.

Synergy, a buzzword frequently dismissed today as business jargon, is the sharing of creative ideas that amplifies energy in unpredictable ways. The old saying that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is a classic illustration of the word synergy.

So, it wasn’t energy alone that was the driving force behind most of J.C.’s wild ideas, it was the synergy created when everyone became part of the process and felt empowered to contribute. There are many teachers and creatives who have a lot of energy, or who push their students to do great things, but do they generate, and perpetuate, synergy? Are they a catalyst?

J.C. was the catalyst that jump-started our energy.

Dr. Combs told me that when he would visit other schools as a clinician, he often found an energetic teacher full of creative ideas, but he didn’t always sense the same enthusiasm from the students. “Everything was flowing one-way: from the teacher to the students. There was just dead energy, and I thought, why don’t teachers just get out of the way of their student’s creativity?” A catalyst can quickly become an inhibitor if energy can’t be turned into synergy. 

Without synergy, students may only go as fast or as far as they are pushed (or dragged in some cases) and when that external pressure is removed, inertia sets in and nothing else happens. Some teachers believe it isn’t their responsibility to get students to “buy in,” but creating something worth buying in to is an important first step toward developing a perpetual culture of creativity. 

One energetic person acting alone can certainly bring a project to a successful conclusion, but it is difficult to sustain that energy if you have to pull the creativity wagon alone. It is much easier—and way more fun—to engage the creativity of others.

I consider myself lucky to have experienced energy and synergy both as a student and as a teacher. Thanks Dr. Combs!

Mentor and Student, Wichita, Kansas, 2019.

Some Lessons You Never Learn: Maybe That’s OK— Chick Corea (1941-2021)

Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea died on February 9, 2021. He was a musician’s musician, an inspired composer, a dynamic entertainer, and a warm human being. Chick mastered many different forms of music from classical to be-bop, and helped pioneer the jazz-rock movement of the 1960s and 70s, among many other musical milestones.

In the early 1980s, Chick Corea was going strong while I — a die-hard-drummer-to-the-bone — was pursuing my passion for marching percussion as the drumline TA for the Wichita State University Marching Band. Mastering the mallet instruments was not on my agenda, but my percussion professor, Dr. J.C. Combs, had other plans. 

Dr. Combs showed me that you could be both a drummer and a mallet player, because that’s exactly what he was. Add to his resume entrepreneur, impresario, emcee, composer, conductor, and civic leader, and you begin to get a clearer picture of J.C. Combs. He is also one of the wittiest and most creative individuals I’ve ever known, and a treasured mentor to me and many others. My classmates at WSU comprise a long list of successful and creative musicians, composers, and educators that includes life-long friends such as composer Paul Elwood, drummer Matt Wilson, and my duo partner, Mat Britain. 

During a memorable vibes lesson, J.C. casually handed me a record, saying, “You might like this.” The album cover was a photo of a city skyline at night with the title, in simple typewriter print, Chick Corea and Gary Burton in Concert, Zurich, October 28, 1979

The next day, I asked Mat Britain if he had heard the album and he responded with an emphatic “Yes! but I thought I had the turntable on the wrong speed at first.” Indeed, the recording of Señor Mouse was so fast that it seemed to be playing at 45 rpms rather than 33 1/3 (something that could easily happen back in turntable days).

Though the album was minimalist and unpretentious on the outside, the music inside was embellished and bold. The double LP recording featured live versions of nine Chick Corea compositions previously released on their earlier studio albums Crystal Silence and Duet, and included a nearly twelve-minute version of Crystal Silence, which became one of my favorites of his works. Those three recordings set in motion my journey with Chick Corea’s music. 

Mat and I explored the Corea songbook together, banging our heads against tunes like Crystal SilenceSea JourneyThe Children’s SongsLa FiestaOpen Your Eyes You Can Fly, and many others. 

Then, when Mat and I heard Andy Narell and Dave Samuels perform for the first time as a steel pan/marimba duo at the 1983 Percussive Arts Society International Convention, the idea for the Britain Moore Duo was hatched. Adding to the significance of that moment for us was that they played a Chick Corea composition. Andy later told me they chose Falling Grace because “it was the only tune we both knew.” By 1983, ten years after its release, Falling Grace had become a Jazz Standard—immortalized in the ubiquitous Real Book, along with several of Chick’s other compositions.

I began studying with Dave Samuels soon after that PASIC performance. He became an early mentor of the Britain Moore Duo who coached us, advised us, and admonished us NOT to play Chick Corea tunes, especially the ones Chick and Gary Burton had made famous. Dave told us, “You don’t want direct comparisons with players like that.” Ouch! 

But this was the one lesson of Dave’s we never learned. The pull of Chick’s music was too strong. 

Chick Corea was a kindred spirit of percussionists, partly because he was a drummer in his younger days, but also because he just loved the vibes and marimba. We were fortunate to host Chick at The University of Iowa on several occasions, and during a Burton Corea duo tour, I got a call that they wanted a marimba for their performance. Sure, no problem. 

When the marimba arrived, Chick seemed more excited than Gary, who barely even looked at the instrument. Chick fawned over our Yamaha five-octave marimba as he told me that most venues on their tours couldn’t come up with one, so this was a real treat. I thought he was just being nice. At concert time, Chick bounced onto the stage clutching a pair of marimba mallets held tightly to his chest. He slid onto the piano bench and discreetly deposited them inside the piano where they remained hidden, and the marimba untouched, for the next 90-minutes. Near the end of their program, they launched into Armando’s Rumba and suddenly Chick retrieved the mallets from their hiding place and burst from the piano to join Gary in a spirited marimba vibes duet. He was having the time of his life, and so was the audience.

After the concert, Chick told me he was “really only practicing the marimba these days” and that he had a similar Yamaha marimba at home. He loved the marimba and enjoyed pushing himself in new musical directions. 

Chick performed often as a soloist but I think that he much preferred making music with others. Here are the final thoughts he shared with his many friends and fans from around the world.

“I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright. It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.

And to my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I’ve known you: it has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly—this has been the richness of my life.”

I still have a great fondness for the mountain of incredible music Chick Corea left us. I will continue to enjoy learning and playing it, and letting it add to the richness of my life. 

 Some lessons you just never learn, and I’m OK with that.

Here is a recording of Crystal Silence made from the light booth at the 10th Patagonia Percussion Festival in Argentina, 2012. My tribute to Chick Corea.