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Herb Pomeroy, founder of MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, dies

Herb Pomeroy performs in 'Beyond: An Ellington Commemoration,' with the MIT Wind Ensemble on April 30, 2004.
Herb Pomeroy performs in 'Beyond: An Ellington Commemoration,' with the MIT Wind Ensemble on April 30, 2004.
Photo / Thomas Maxisch

Jazz icon Herb Pomeroy, who founded the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble in 1963, died August 11 at his home in Gloucester. He was 77.

Pomeroy, a trumpeter inspired by Louis Armstrong, played with such jazz greats as Charlie Parker, Stan Kenton and Lionel Hampton. When he first came to MIT, he found a jazz ensemble so bad that he called their performance "horrible." He considered telling them he couldn't continue, but instead told the musicians, "Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work."

That work continued for 22 years, until 1985, and under Pomeroy's guidance, the Festival Jazz Ensemble (FJE) was transformed into a top-notch, award-winning group that gained wide recognition through their concerts and festival appearances. The FJE has performed throughout the United States; it was also the first college ensemble to appear at Switzerland's prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival.

"Herb was the real architect of the jazz program at MIT. In the early going of our music program, jazz was one of our flagship activities, even before classical music. Herb was unusual in that he was a wonderful jazz player who liked to and could teach," said composer and Institute Professor John Harbison of MIT's music section.

"This is an unfathomable loss to jazz at MIT and the jazz world in general," said Frederick Harris, Jr., the current director of MIT's wind ensembles. "Herb was one of my most important mentors, and what is so amazing is that there are literally thousands of musicians who can say the same thing. His reach was incredible. He was a rare and special man who was not only a first-class musician but also a first-class human being."

Pomeroy regularly returned to MIT as a guest artist from 2000-2005. According to Harris, he continually "gave so much of himself to our students and to our faculty."

Music and Theater Arts Lecturer Mark Harvey recalled, "It was a signal honor for me to have Herb perform as a featured soloist in my wind ensemble piece 'Beyond,' commemorating Duke Ellington. Herb had played with the Duke and taught a legendary course on Ellington's music at Berklee. Herb brought to this performance, to our students, and to all of his years at MIT, something of the Ellingtonian model of generosity, warmth and superb musicianship. We will all miss him greatly."

In 2005, when Pomeroy returned to MIT for a concert saluting his 75th birthday, the performance featured alumni conductors and musicians.

"Herb taught us more than music," said Dave Ricks (S.B. '83; S.M. '83; Ph.D. '94 Ocean Engineering), a member of the ensemble from 1978-1983 and 1987-1994. "He helped me refine the way I deal with people. He's a master of making things better by bringing out the best in people. Whenever I get confused about what other people are, and what other people are for, I remember how Herb worked with us, and I just focus on treating other people well."

Visiting hours will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 15 in the Pike-Grondin Funeral Home, 61 Middle Street, Gloucester from 4 to 8 p.m. Relatives and friends are invited to attend.

A celebration of Pomeroy's life and music will be held Sunday, Sept. 9, at Emmanuel Church, 15 Newbury St., Boston, at 3 p.m.

The MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble will conduct a memorial concert on Saturday, May 10 in Kresge Auditorium.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 19, 2007 (download PDF).

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