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Herb Pomeroy still remembers the day in March 1963 when the distress call came from MIT. It was the late Professor Klaus Leipman, founder of MIT's music program, saying in his thick German accent, "We have a jazz band here that is so bad... we don't want them representing MIT." Professor Leipman said he had suggested to the members of the Techtonians, then a student-led jazz band, that they either disband or get someone to "upgrade" them. "Your name was the one that they asked for first," Professor Leipman told Mr. Pomeroy.
At age 33, Mr. Pomeroy was already well into a successful career as a jazz trumpeter, arranger, composer, leader of his own big band and member of the jazz faculty at Berklee College of Music. But he agreed to rehearse the group for the remaining six rehearsals in the semester -- for $30 a rehearsal -- and then decide if he wanted to stay.
Thus marked the beginning of a 22-year career at MIT for Mr. Pomeroy, who went on to found the Institute's award-winning Festival Jazz Ensemble (FJE) and develop it into one of the country's top collegiate jazz bands. From 1963-85, Mr. Pomeroy led the FJE to national acclaim through performances and festival appearances in New England, the Midwest and at Switzerland's prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, brought dozens of specially commissioned compositions into the FJE's library, and paved the way for the enthusiastic continuation and development of jazz ensembles at MIT.
Along the way, he changed the lives of numerous students who remember "Herb" not only as a first-class musician but also as a first-class human being who brought out the best in those around him.
This week, MIT celebrates Mr. Pomeroy's 70th birthday in a public three-day festival honoring the Boston jazz legend and his extraordinary career as a player, educator, leader, writer and arranger.
Events begin on Thursday, April 27 with a career retrospective panel discussion with guests Boston Globe jazz critic Bob Blumenthal and former Globe jazz critic Ernie Santosuosso. On Friday, April 28, Mr. Pomeroy will lead an open rehearsal/workshop, "The Art of Directing a Jazz Ensemble," featuring the Berklee Concert Jazz Orchestra.
The events culminate in a concert on Saturday, April 29 featuring the current Festival Jazz Ensemble and the Herb Pomeroy Quartet, with guest conductors Mr. Pomeroy and composer Magali Souriau, a Berklee alumna. The concert will include the world premiere of a work by Ms. Souriau written for the FJE with Mr. Pomeroy as soloist. (For complete event information, see the Arts Calendar.)
The festival was the idea of Fred Harris, MIT's new director of wind ensembles, who in September 1999 became the FJE's current director. Dr. Harris said he first heard the Herb Pomeroy Big Band as a teenager growing up in Manchester, NH, and later played with Mr. Pomeroy in a New Hampshire dance band.
"When I was appointed to the MIT position, I immediately thought of Herb and the legacy he left to MIT," said Dr. Harris. When he found out that Mr. Pomeroy was turning 70 on April 15, he saw it as a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the man who, he says, "has most likely influenced more players, composers, students and music educators working in the jazz idiom than any other musician in New England."
THE EARLY YEARS
The ensemble "was so bad" the first year (1963-64), said Mr. Pomeroy, that he "actually lied and told them I was busy on the nights of the concerts," leaving them to lead themselves. Speaking in a recent interview with Senior Library Assistant Forrest Larson for the Oral History Project at the Rosalind Denny Lewis Music Library, Mr. Pomeroy said that while the group initially didn't show much promise musically, "they seemed like good young people -- the kind of people that if I spent some time and they spent some time, we could make something of it together. I sensed a drive, an integrity."
As the newly named MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble improved and began performing at regional jazz festivals, student interest in the group grew too. Within a couple of years, up to 50 interested students were showing up for auditions.
Over the years, the quality ebbed and flowed, said Mr. Pomeroy, in part because college musical groups peak in cycles like college sports teams. But certain years were highlights for him.
"My first good college level band was in spring of 1967, when we were one of the honorable mentions at Notre Dame," the top collegiate jazz festival held yearly in South Bend, IN, he said. The next peak for him and the group was in 1970, when the FJE performed by invitation at the Montreux Jazz Festival, "the first time we really made a strong statement."
While leading the FJE at MIT, Mr. Pomeroy maintained his position at Berklee, where he taught for 41 years. But he enjoyed the enthusiasm and spirit that MIT students brought to their music, and admired their intensity. "Many of them would have open books laying on their laps during rehearsals," he said, studying during the moments when the rehearsal wasn't focused on them.
'COMPASSION AT FOREFRONT'
In spreading the word about this week's festival, Dr. Harris has heard from a number of returning FJE alumni/ae, all of whom, he said, "speak of Herb's unbelievable level of musicianship and his ability to teach with human compassion at the forefront."
"Herb taught us more than music," wrote David Ricks (SB 1983), who played trumpet and flugelhorn in the FJE for 10 years and will travel from his home in Arlington, VA for Saturday's concert. "He helped me refine the way I deal with people."
"Herb's standards of musical excellence and emotional truth still stand as guides for everything I do," attested Jamshied Sharifi (SB 1983), who played in the FJE from 1981-83 and became director of the ensemble after Mr. Pomeroy left. A graduate of both MIT and Berklee, Mr. Sharifi wrote numerous compositions for the FJE and now has an active career in New York City composing film scores.
"His style of rehearsing and conducting is still my main guide, whether working on an overdub with a single player, or standing in front of a 100-piece film orchestra," he said. "Herb never let any of us forget that making music is a joy and a privilege."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 26, 2000.