I never met Herb but my trumpet teacher had been one of his students, and I went to hear him play whenever I could get to Boston. He was an astounding talent with a combination of technical agility and improvisational originality that was as rare as it was exciting to listen to. I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that the memorial service held for him yesterday featured the same property of synthesizing opposites that made Herb so special.
It was a New Orleans-style musical tribute but instead of marching in the streets, it was held inside Emmanuel Church, an old New England landmark dating back almost to the Civil War.
Steve Kuhn began to recall renowned jazz trumpeter and teacher Herb Pomeroy yesterday from the pulpit at Emmanuel Church – an inspirational musician and educator, a dear man, and a good friend – but the loss of his longtime colleague, who died last month, overtook him.
So the influential jazz artist sat at the piano and played a sad, sweet tune that filled the 19th-century church on Newbury Street and drew applause from some 300 people who had gathered to pay tribute to Pomeroy’s life and lasting influence on generations of musicians.
Somehow an inherently antagonistic pairing of old and new that complimented each other rather than clashing seemed righteously appropriate, as if you’d put Victorian furniture inside a Frank Lloyd Wright house and to everyone’s surprise, it worked. That’s sort of Herb’s life story.
Herb Pomeroy was a very traditional guy in most respects. A purist, he was always more comfortable with amateur sports than professional, preferred live performance to recording, and was something of a Luddite, ignoring computers and writing out the charts for his big band manually. Yet he broke into the jazz scene playing with the likes of Bird, Stan Kenton, and Max Roach, who thought he was the closest thing to Brownie he’d ever heard.
Herb’s life was full of contradictions that he somehow always managed to meld into harmony. He’d play one gig with jazz pioneer Sonny Rollins and burn up the joint, then the next gig he’d back Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett with tasteful fills and solid supporting lines. It was a mystery how a single musician could play such disparate styles with equal authority, but he did it.
Perhaps the biggest contradiction was the way he successfully kept one foot on the larger jazz stage without ever leaving Boston. In the 50’s, as a kid in his 20’s, he was on the fast track to stardom on the national scene, playing with some of the biggest names around. He could have been Blue Mitchell or Art Farmer if he’d been willing to tour with combos and record, but he wasn’t.
The economics of the jazz scene changed as be-bop slowly replaced swing and big bands gradually vanished because they were too expensive to maintain. Only the already-famous giants like Ellington and Basie could survive financially with big outfits, but Herb loved Big Bands and he turned his back on fame to come home to New England and form his own, the aptly-named Herb Pomeroy Big Band. He eventually found a home for it at the Stables jazz club in Copley Square.
Big jazz bands remained popular in Boston long after the rest of the country had passed on them but their financial viability was a real problem. Herb’s band paid for itself but not much else. His personal financial problems began to be solved when Berklee Music College founder Larry Berk hired him to teach. His teaching style turned out to be as unorthodox as his taste in music.
Pomeroy taught like he played jazz — by improvising, with no notes, no syllabus, no text books, said Larry Monroe, another former student who is now Berklee’s vice president for international affairs.
“He personified the educator, the performer, the activist, everything that makes music go,” Monroe said. “He literally influenced thousands and thousands of musicians.”
His eventual 40-year relationship with MIT – a nerd magnet from around the universe and not normally the kind of place you’d expect to find a jazz band – began just as nonchalantly.
Herb Pomeroy was just 33 and already a nationally known soloist, bandleader and teacher when he was asked to direct MIT’s jazz ensemble in the spring of 1963. He said he found the existing ensemble “very, very bad” and considered leaving. But instead, he said to the musicians, “Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
That decision proved a boon for the Institute. During Pomeroy’s 22 years at MIT, he transformed MIT’s Festival Jazz Ensemble (FJE) into a top-notch, award-winning group.
Typical. He took a bunch of unskilled geeks who saw jazz as a collection of mathematical equations and couldn’t feel a syncopated beat with a gun to their heads, and he transformed them into a jazz powerhouse with both soul and chops.
Pure Pomeroy, you might say.