Studio Visit: Mikel Combs

Studio Visit: Mikel Combs

Studio Visit is a Q&A with a local artist. Mikel Combs, 40, of Urbana, a professional bassist and doctoral of musical arts degree candidate at the University of Illinois, chatted with The News-Gazette's Melissa Merli.

I heard you grew up in Berlin.

Yes. I left in '83 — so the first nine years of my life were there. My dad (now deceased) was a spy for U.S. Army Intelligence and was there before I was born.

Man, what was it like growing up there?

Great. We lived among other military dependents in the middle of Berlin. I lived close to the wall. I walked to it every day I could. You looked over it and it was a pretty surreal thing. It was some kind of unobtainable fantasyland and it made no sense. Every day there was a person getting shot trying to get into the West.

Did growing up there influence your music?

My mom's a classical violinist and she took me to concerts at the Berlin Philharmonic all the time. I was surrounded by musicians all the time. So what I do is a natural extension of that.

When did you start playing the bass?

I was 14. I started playing it because my friends and I started a heavy metal band called Products of Society. That was in Fort Meade, Md. I grew up taking violin, trombone, French horn and piano lessons, so the bass and heavy metal were something I could own.

When did you get into jazz?

A year after I started playing bass, I heard Ray Brown and that was it. I sought a private teacher and started taking lessons.

Did you study bass throughout high school and college?

Yes — after I got over my wanderlust playing professionally after high school. I traveled around and lived on both coasts and eventually got a bachelor's and master's degree at the University of North Texas. After that, I went around Texas, playing, and was in a serious relationship. Then I got a job as a lecturer at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma. I was there two years and quickly realized without a doctorate in academe, you're on thin ice all the time. I was either going to go back to D.C. and just gig until I died but took a chance and applied to only here. They took me in and I have a full ride.

I assume you study with Larry Gray?

Yep. Larry is my primary teacher. I take composition lessons with Rick Taube. And I study with all the jazz faculty. They're world-class players and teachers. On the subterranean level, this is really a composition-arrangement environment here so I compose and arrange too. If jazz is to last, the younger generations like me will have to forge a new canon. Not that the earlier stuff isn't great, but it needs to evolve more significantly than it has.

Do you play classical?

No. I play a lot of different genres. Fusion, jazz, country, singer-songwriter, straight-up rock 'n' roll. All kinds of society gigs. I never had a klezmer gig, though. I have done orchestra and string-quartet wedding gigs through the years, but I have no desire to pursue classical.

What bands do you play in here?

Everybody. Name them. This semester I'm a regular in the Chip McNeill-Tito Carrillo Quintet. We play every other Wednesday at The Iron Post.

What do you plan to do after you get your DMA?

I hope to be bulletproof in academe. I hope to teach. My plan is to continue to gig until I can't, maybe 10 to 15 more years and maybe get a university position then. I'm going to hustle until I die. I kind of realized that a long time ago.