Born 1939. South Charleston, Kanawha County
One of the world’s leading orchestral clarinetists, Larry Combs has also been active in chamber music and in the Chicago jazz scene. He began to play clarinet in Charleston at the age of 10 and, by the time he was 13 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 and, at age 16, he was the orchestra’s principal clarinetist. While in high school his clarinet quintet entered the nationally televised “Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour.” The group placed second on the show, after a one-legged tap dancer.
During the summer, he attended the National Music Camp at Interlochen, MI, where he worked with professional musicians and the most talented musicians from around the country in his age group. In 1957, he entered the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, where he was a pupil of Stanley Hasty, a leading clarinet teacher. After graduating from Eastman, Combs joined the New Orleans Philharmonic as third clarinet/bass clarinet player. This job was interrupted when he was drafted into the military. After basic training he was sent to West Point and assigned to be a member of the United States Military Academy Band. This enabled him to travel to New York City for continuing studies with clarinetist Leon Russianoff. The New Orleans Philharmonic welcomed him back after his enlistment, this time as the orchestra’s principal clarinetist.
In 1968, Combs became Principal of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and, in 1974, he joined the clarinet section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the leading orchestras in 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 the CSO records in virtually every important solo clarinet passage. He has won two Grammy Awards for “Best Chamber Music Performance.”
Combs is also a founding member of the Chicago Chamber Musicians. He has performed the Brahms Trio in A minor with Daniel Barenboim and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and has appeared at the Ravinia Festival with its musical director, Christoph Eschenbach. Other appearances have been with The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian Chamber Players.
Also a jazz player, his Combs-Novak Sextet was one of the headliners at the 1999 Chicago Jazz Festival and Combs recorded an album with jazz clarinetist Eddie Daniels (“Crossing the Line”). Combs is a clinician for the G. Leblanc Company, which makes the Opus II clarinets he helped to design, and the Larry Combs models of clarinet mouthpieces.