Marvin McCombs and Wayne Brown have been performing on Birmingham stages for decades now and, though they are familiar to many musicians in the area, they may not be as well known to broader audiences. McCombs and Brown chalk this up to their contentment in just being able to play the music they enjoy without the fuss of constant solicitation for work and venues.
This Saturday the duo, which features McCombs on the guitar and Brown on the piano, will perform their first advertised show at the Alabama Piano Gallery. The show will likely introduce the veteran musicians to many who have never heard them before.
Weld caught up with the duo at one of their regular venues, the Starbucks on Montclair, where on most Monday mornings they perform European standards on the accordion and banjo or mandolin.
Weld: How long have you been playing together?
Marvin McCombs: Probably, how long would you say … 50 years?
Wayne Brown: Off and on, 50 years, yes.
Weld: And you met at a club that used to be just up the road from here?
WB: No. That was where he substituted for me when I walked out [on a show].
MM: I was in my pajamas, ready to go to bed at about 9:30 when I got this call from a bass player saying, “Hey, can you come finish the job for us? Our piano player walked out!” [Laughs] Little did I know, I would be playing with that piano player for the next 50 years. But he had a reason for walking out and I understood that. He was playing with this musician who heard these things in his head and he expected you to read his mind.
WB: But here’s a bit of fatherly advice for you: Never walk off the job. You just don’t do that. That was the only time I ever did and I regret it. It’s not fair for the audience and it’s not fair on the band.
Weld: Martin, you have a background as a professional musician, don’t you?
MM: Well, I have a music degree. I taught music at the University of Montevallo. I taught classical guitar there, and I taught Spanish.
Weld: How did you learn guitar? Are you self-taught?
MM: Uh, by ear, at first. And then I majored in music, and that was my downfall. [Laughs].
Weld: What about you, Wayne?
WB: Oh no, I started taking [piano lessons] in grammar school, and at that time they had teachers all over the city that were sponsored by the Conservatory of Music with Birmingham-Southern. So you were getting the good stuff, you know, and you were getting taught the right way. And I took several years from this one teacher until I was 15 or 16, and then I stopped taking lessons and got into other parts — started fiddling around with ragtime and stuff. I just kept fiddling with it, you know: practice, practice, practice.
Weld: And you came close to going full-time with Johnny Desmond?
WB: That would have been my ticket, yes, had I decided to take that fatal step and go up there to New York. I have no qualms about having turned that down. It seems like everyone who goes big time ends up into alcohol or drugs or has some vice to lean on. But I did get the offer!
Weld: Marvin, you’ve played with Roger Williams?
MM: Roger Williams, yes. And I played with Herb Ellis. And I played with Jim Nabors when he came to town. He came to town after his Hollywood thing and did something with the symphony, and I didn’t even know he was a vocalist until he did that. … He did a great show!
I’ll tell you a funny story; when I got out of college, a lot of the musicians when coming to town would use union musicians, so I got this call to do the Eddie Arnold Show. But, before Eddie Arnold did his show, the warm-up guy — this guy in a brown suit and a Dickie-type tie, one of those little Western ties — he played the guitar and he played “Wildwood Flower” and a couple of other tunes, and I told the bass player, I said, “There’s a guy who’ll never make it!”
It was Willie Nelson! [Laughs] So little did I know! I didn’t know he had written all those great songs … Patsy Cline and all that. He made a good living writing songs before he became an entertainer! So, I’m not a good judge of who can make it.
Weld: Tell me about your upcoming show at the Steinway shop.
MM: We enjoy that, so it gives us an outlet and we don’t have to hold back like when we’re playing in little places. This way we can sort of do our thing.
WB: Well, we play stuff that [the audience is] familiar with and then we mess with it. Take it somewhere else. We might can get it back, we might not. [Laughs]
MM: Sometimes those are the greatest things. Like, sometimes a jazz musician will make a mistake, and when he comes to that section again, he’ll make the same mistake again so it sounds like he did it on purpose!
WB: Or, he’ll take the mistake and run with it.
MM: And I don’t think it really matters because you’re supposed to be creative. You know, if you do things note for note, the way somebody else wrote it, it’s not creative. That’s the reason I love jazz so much — there [are] no mistakes because we’re playing it from within a feeling. Just like blues players — it’s hard for a blues player to make a mistake because you have this full environment you’re playing within that doesn’t include a lot of complicated stuff, so you can sort of do anything!
Weld: Your music draws comparisons to Django Reinhart. Would you say he’s your biggest influence?
MM: Well, I love Django, yeah! I would say now he is, yes. But I had to rediscover him. You know, being young, you want to do this be-bop thing, and my big influences were these be-bop players; George Benson and some of those. But you don’t hear much from them now because their music has sort of gone by the wayside. But there’s a resurgence of the gypsy-jazz, which is Django’s type music. Young people are playing that now. So, I’ve sort of rediscovered that lately.
Classical-wise, [we’re influenced by] Andrés Segovia, who was the last maestro as far as classical music. He sort of made the guitar respectable on the concert stage. George Benson, of course. I love him. And Wes Montgomery is probably my favorite of all time.
WB: We’ll make it a point for him to do some Wes. [My influences are] Carmen Cavallaro, Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson. And Ben Light. I listened to a lot of his stuff too. He had some good records.
Weld: How often do you both practice?
MM: Well, we talk about it a lot. [Laughs] You see, we have breakfast together so we talk music all the time. Then we say, hey, let’s practice Thursday or something. So, periodically.
WB: We try to get once a week. Like, we’ll be going over what we’re going to do for [the show], maybe two times before we get there. We already know it, but still.
MM: Yeah, and we sort of tweak it. Like on our first tune, we’ve decided that I’m going to use the classical guitar and give a little Spanish flavor to it. Then he’s playing this tune called “Orfeo” and it comes in as a fast tempo with a lot of notes and all that sort of thing. So I just [set the mood], then he takes off and does his thing.
Weld: Where else can people hear you play?
MM: Well, if people want to hear us, sometimes we play here [at the Starbucks Coffee on Montclair Road] on Mondays. We play Pepper Place once a month on Saturdays.
WB: We play Continental Bakery the 27th, before [Saturday’s] show.
MM: We play Chez Lulu sometimes. Here and those places are the perfect places for us because we don’t play the nightclubs because they want the frenzy. You know, you’ve got a blues band that plays loud and the frenzy of all that — that’s good too, don’t get me wrong—
WB: No, it’s not. [Laughs]
MM: —but it’s not what we do. I’ve gone through that; he has, too.
Marvin McCombs and Wayne Brown will play a free concert at the Alabama Piano Gallery in Vestavia Hills on Saturday, March 28 at 3 p.m. They will be accompanied on bass by Charlie Giambrone. For more information, visit Marvin and Wayne’s Facebook page.