Jentry McCombs has a bone to pick. “Your magazine says I’m the ‘self-proclaimed’ best street musician in Denver, but I don’t like that,” McCombs says, semi-jokingly referring to a five-year-old article about Denver’s street musicians. “I am the best street musician, and I am the king of Denver. Who can beat the soul flute?”
The man might have a point.
Armed with his flute and a “band in a box” that supplies his backing music, McCombs, aka Jammin’ J.D., expertly trills and toots everything from rock and roll to jazz to patriotic standards from his location at 16th and Wazee streets. Without the confines of a venue, his notes soar far and wide throughout LoDo, bouncing off incoming Union Station trains and buses and tickling the ears of the busy downtown crowd.
“My tone is as good as anybody’s who is classically trained,” he says. “But you can’t hear them a block away like you can Jentry.”
He engages the crowd like a veteran showman, shouting out to passersby: “How we feeling today, Denver?” and “This one is for the ladies!” Without the luxury of a captive, seated audience, he sometimes has only seconds to entertain a person, so he always takes full advantage of any opportunity.
McCombs is not homeless, as some of those passersby assume. Being a street musician is his career. He performs on the street five days a week because he loves performing, but also because the traditional route of playing in bars and clubs proved far less financially viable. And even though his venue is this corner of the 16th Street Mall, he is a professional musician by every definition of the term.
“I was in food service; I was a server, and my very first job was at a pizzeria,” he recalls. “But the last 25 years, I’ve lived solely on my flute. This is how I pay my bills. This is no joke for me — this is the real thing.”
His journey to the street started in the third grade in Washington, D.C.; like many other elementary schools, his handed out recorders and required students to learn to play them. McComb took to the instrument immediately and stuck with it, because he loved the tone — and because the recorder fit his physical limitations. “I tried to join the school band in junior high, but the only thing they had left to play was the tuba,” he remembers. “I was very skinny then, and I couldn’t carry it. From there I tried to join the glee club; I was just going to sing. But I always kept that recorder, and I would listen to the radio after school and play along with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and all that good old music. My sisters were Motown fans, so they had all the albums, and I would dig through them and learn all of these new songs that I didn’t know about. I was playing all of this stuff by ear.”
He eventually saved up enough to buy his first real flute. While he never had any official training on the instrument, he began playing other forms of music, like rock and roll and jazz. And he discovered renowned flutists such as Herbie Mann, his biggest influence to date.
McCombs started performing at open mikes in D.C.’s Brookland area, meeting other musicians and honing his chops. He eventually started a band, Jahroco, with some friends from his old neighborhood. But the gigs they landed were usually unpaid, and he needed to find a way to supplement his food-service wages.
Then someone suggested that he play in front of the buildings of the Smithsonian Institution, which attracts crowds of students and tourists from all over the world. McCombs took his flute to the famous cluster of museums and quickly got a feel for what visitors wanted to hear. “I learned to play a lot of patriotic music there, because that would make people feel proud and patriotic, and that would trickle down into their wallets,” he says. “That’s when people would start throwing tens and twenties.”
At the time, McCombs regarded street performing as nothing more than a way to collect a little cash on the side and maybe meet some new people. He was still working full-time at a restaurant and practicing with Jahroco during his off-hours. When his son was born, he had even less free time, and he would venture down to the Smithsonian only on weekends.
When his son was still a toddler, though, McCombs was laid off from the food-service company. He found himself in a precarious situation — but he had a plan.
“I took my flute straight to the Smithsonian,” he remembers. “I didn’t have a job, so I would go out and hustle to make money to buy Pampers. I started making $100 a day there. I realized then that I could be self-reliant.” When Jahroco broke up, McCombs became a full-time street performer. He had no boss, set his own hours, and made more money than he ever had in the food-service industry.
People were starting to notice his music, too. McCombs was offered an all-expenses-paid trip to perform at prestigious Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh; in 1991, he performed on Showtime at the Apollo, his first time on national television. After he returned from New York, he sat in with various prominent D.C. bands, including the Mikko Robins Quartet. He was getting opportunities that most musicians only dreamed of. Unfortunately, that lifestyle had its perils, and he was soon caught up in drugs. “The drug epidemic had taken over D.C., and everyone I knew was affected,” he remembers. “I wanted to get away from it all. Everyone I knew was on crack, and I couldn’t seem to escape.”
While McCombs struggled to break free from crack, he still hit the streets and played his flute in order to provide for his family. Sadly, drugs were picking that family apart. By 2000, both his brother and his son’s mother had died of drug overdoses. That’s when he devised a plan to get away from everything for good.
“I was playing in Old Town Alexandria a lot, so I decided to start staying there,” he recalls. “I would book a cheap motel and just not keep in touch with anyone I knew from D.C. I was doing pretty well and saving up money, and I wanted to get an apartment. I saw an ad for one near Howard University, and I got it. I couldn’t see anyone from the old neighborhood, because everyone was strung out.” His ploy worked: McCombs got clean and has not relapsed since.
Unfortunately, his decision to walk away from old friends and the passing of family members left him feeling isolated and alone. In 2007 he met a girl from Denver who suggested that he move to Colorado with her. McCombs was “tired of ducking and dodging the park police,” he says, so he took her up on it.
One of his first stops was the 16th Street Mall, where he was soon wooing a brand-new audience in a brand-new city. “When I first came to Denver, I was just doing a cappella flute and not dragging around” backing tracks and amps, he remembers. “I was hot shit when I got here. I established myself on Stout Street; then I started playing up on Tremont. And that’s when I started using my accompaniment.” And that’s when he discovered that although Denver doesn’t require street performers to get permits, they do need to keep sound levels within Chapter 36 of De
nver’s municipal code, which limits noise to 55 A-weighted decibels during the day, 50 dBA after 10 p.m.
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And while Denver is generally more accommodating than D.C., McCombs says, he still had trouble finding a permanent corner, since there are often as many as a dozen performers competing for attention — and space — at any given time. “They were very strict back then, telling me I couldn’t use amplification and that I couldn’t sell my CDs on the mall,” he says. “I figured out that if someone wants to buy my CDs, I just tell people to put the $10 in the tip box and I’ll give you a CD.”
Those lessons learned, he eventually found his way to his current spot at 16th and Wazee. He plays there five days a week, and while he occasionally gets gigs at a nonprofit event or church gathering, street performing is still his career.
“I love my audience out on the street far more than any club show,” he says. “You’re gonna see the same old drunks in the club, but out here, I gain new fans every day. Street performing is a beautiful thing, because you never know who you’re gonna meet. My friend told me, ‘Don’t take your music where people don’t appreciate it.’”
Lucky for McCombs, Denver definitely appreciates his music. Is he the best? Decide for yourself: He’s probably on his corner right now.