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MIT honors late band leader Herb Pomeroy at moving memorial concert

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
MIT honors late band leader Herb Pomeroy at moving memorial concert
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Revered jazz trumpeter, band leader and educator Herb Pomeroy once urged an audience to toss out their CDs and instead, go out and “see live jazz.”

Pomeroy made the remark in 2005 while taking part in a panel at the Berklee School of Music, where he taught for 41 years. While teaching at Berklee, he joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and from 1963 to 1985 he directed its band and developed its formal jazz program.

So it is fitting that MIT commemorates Pomeroy, who died in 2007, with an annual concert. This year’s three-hour event celebrated both the man and the five decades of jazz he set in motion at MIT.

In the ‘50s, students formed the MIT Jazz Society and began airing jazz shows on the campus radio station (now WMBR-FM). Pomeroy arrived and transformed MIT’s long-standing big band, the Techtonians, into a sophisticated jazz ensemble that in 1970 became one of the first college bands to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Held Saturday night at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, the 50th Anniversary Gala and 6th Annual Herb Pomeroy Memorial Concert featured the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, conducted by Frederick Harris Jr., MIT’s director of wind and jazz ensembles. The event also capped a week of panels, lectures and performances celebrating 50 Years of Jazz at MIT.

Fronted by red bandstands emblazoned with Herb Pomeroy’s initials in white, the ensemble included 14 brass players and a six-member rhythm section. The power and verve of big-band jazz as well as its continuous evolution was on display. Selections looked back and forward, spanning swing, bebop and contemporary veins of jazz.

The concert presented three world premieres. The first was a striking composition by pianist Peter Godart (’15) entitled “Pairity.” After a reflective piano solo, the entire band joined in, repeating Godart’s long, low phrasing and adding sinuous sax solos. The music then took a funky turn with a chugging rock rhythm and horn chops that evoked the jazz fusion group Return to Forever, led by pianist Chick Corea.

The winner of 20 Grammy Awards, Corea appeared in a documentary about jazz at MIT, shown during the concert. In the film, Corea coaches the students as they rehearse “From Forever (Suite for Big Band),” another of the program’s world premieres. Corea composed the brassy, high-energy piece for the band and dedicated it to Pomeroy, who gave him his first gig.  

Renowned jazz pianist Steve Kuhn offered a solo tribute to Pomeroy. He told the audience that he first met Pomeroy at age 13 and  regarded him as a mentor and “big brother.” Kuhn segued seamlessly between two of his own compositions, “Trance” and “Oceans in the Sky,” casting a spell as he moved through rippling dark chords and melodic refrains.

Hosted by Fred Harris, the evening had the feeling of a reunion. He called current and former leaders of MIT’s varied jazz programs to the stage and greeted each man with a warm hug. They included Pomeroy’s chosen successor as director, the composer and keyboardist Jamshied Sharifi, a graduate of both MIT and Berklee; and James O’Dell, band’s third director, now head of the Music Division at Boston Conservatory.

Harris spoke of “the three pillars” of jazz at MIT: Pomeroy, Everett Longstreth and Rev. Mark Harvey. Each has brought MIT a depth of relationships throughout the jazz world and within the Boston jazz community. Under their successive leadership, MIT’s jazz programs have drawn a Who’s Who roster of musicians as artists in residence and faculty.

The concert demonstrated the variety, reach and longevity of MIT’s jazz activities as well as Pomeroy’s influence.

Performers included the MIT Chamber Music Society Jazz Combo, a refined sextet coached by bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa through MIT’s Affiliated Artist program.

Singing with warmth and a cappella precision, the 10-member MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble rendered two Jerome Kern standards arranged by their founding director, MIT Institute Professor John Harbison — a renowned composer of symphonies, operas and large choral works. Before sharing the stage with the 31-member 2013 Alumni Band for a grand finale, the Festival Jazz Ensemble performed the evening’s third world premiere, “In Search of the Master.” Written by an Alumni Band trombonist, Richard Orr (’62), the swinging, flugelhorn-led composition celebrates Pomeroy’s arrival at MIT.  

“Herb Pomeroy was a beautiful flugelhorn player,” Harris said after the concert. “So that was a double hats off to him.”