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Music and Theater Arts celebrates the 50th anniversary of Jazz at MIT

Chick Corea composing a work for the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble.
Herb Pomeroy
Herb Pomeroy
Chick Corea
Chick Corea

MIT Music and Theater Arts is celebrating the golden anniversary of its jazz program this spring with an exhibit in the Lewis Music Library, panel discussions with jazz artists and alumni, and a gala concert.

MIT's jazz program was founded in 1963, but from the 1920s up until 1963, student-led jazz groups and student-produced concerts abounded on the MIT campus. The student-led jazz groups during those early decades included the MIT Dance Orchestra, the MIT Techtonians and the MIT Jazz Society. On-campus performances were frequently presented by MIT student ensembles as well as by professional artists such as Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane and others. The one thing these efforts lacked was the leadership of a professional jazz educator to mentor and direct the students and their activities.

Pomeroy at MIT

It was clear to Klaus Liepmann, the Institute's first director of music, that MIT's young jazz musicians deserved the leadership of a professional music educator and director. In 1963, Liepmann made the pivotal decision to hire local musician Herb Pomeroy to lead the Techtonians.

Under Pomeroy's leadership, the jazz program at MIT flourished. The Festival Jazz Ensemble (as it was later renamed) rose to national prominence with its participation at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and in the Notre Dame and Villanova Jazz Festivals. Herb Pomeroy also further developed the jazz program by bringing Everett Longstreth in 1968 to lead a second jazz band at MIT, a post Longstreth would hold for 27 years. Pomeroy retired from MIT in 1985 after leading the Festival Jazz Band for 22 years.

Corea premiere to salute Pomeroy's legacy

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the MIT jazz program, Chick Corea, recipient of 18 Grammy awards, composer and keyboard virtuoso, is composing a work for the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble (directed by Frederick Harris, Jr.). The commissioned piece, which was funded by the Council for the Arts at MIT, will be premiered on April 27 at Kresge Auditorium in a Gala Concert that will also feature Steve Kuhn, one of the most lyrical and affecting pianists in jazz.

Corea, a native of Chelsea, Mass., has strong ties to MIT, where as a high school junior he rehearsed and played trumpet and piano in a jazz sextet that he formed with Joel Karp '62 and Rich Orr '62, trombones; MIT graduate students Ed Kane and Roger Eiss, on trumpet and bass; and Boston resident Lennie Nelson on drums. This was one of Corea's first bands. According to Corea, the MIT-rich group gave him the opportunity to write some of his earliest arrangements. "It was a lot of fun," he said.

Jazz mentors

Just as Corea has influenced many young musicians during his illustrious career, he was himself inspired by the founder of the MIT Jazz program — Herb Pomeroy. Through his teaching, playing and band leading, Pomeroy touched and greatly influenced the lives of several generations of musicians.

"Herb Pomeroy and his band and the musicians he collected around him provided the first really deep, professional, great live jazz playing for me," Corea said in a recent interview. "Herb and his band provided a lot of inspiration to me. So I thank him for that."

It was Pomeroy who offered him his first professional club date as the opening act for the Herb Pomeroy Big Band at the Stables club on Huntington Avenue in Boston. "I think it was on a Sunday," Corea recounted, "and that was my first big gig in a jazz club. It was great."

Institute of jazz

Pomeroy was among the finest jazz artists and educators of the last 50 years, and his influence continues to enhance the jazz program at MIT to this day. His music library, recordings and personal papers are part of the MIT Institute Archives, and his legacy includes the line of distinguished jazz leaders who have succeeded him: Jamshied Sharifi, James O'Dell and current director Harris, who has directed the Festival Jazz Ensemble since 1999.

Under their direction, the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble has performed with such distinguished guest musicians as Charlie Mariano, Ray Santisi, Phil Woods, Joe Lovano, Kenny Werner, Don Byron, Steve Turre, Terence Blanchard, Dominique Eade and Guillermo Klein, among others. In addition, many notable jazz composers including Magali Souriau, Guillermo Klein, Sharifi, Kenny Werner, George Schuller, Mark Harvey and Corea have written music for the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble.

Today, in addition to the Festival Jazz Ensemble, MIT's popular Jazz program also includes three jazz combos, coached by bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa, the MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble, led by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and MIT Institute Professor John Harbison, and subjects in jazz history, harmony, arranging, composition and improvisation, taught by composer and trumpeter, Mark Harvey, lecturer and founding director of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra.

Admission to the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble gala concert on April 27 is free in advance, and $5 at the door. Tickets available at See the complete schedule of all the 50th Jazz Anniversary events.

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