"This band is so bad that I've told them to either disband or find a professional leader."
Jazz legend Herb Pomeroy recalled the words of Klaus Liepmann in the spring of 1963 as Liepmann, founder of MIT's music program, tried to persuade Pomeroy to take on the role of MIT jazz bandleader. Pomeroy, then 33 and an instructor at the Berklee School of Music, already had a local and national reputation as an outstanding soloist, bandleader and teacher; by age 25 he had performed with Charlie Parker, toured with Stan Kenton and Lionel Hampton, and recorded with Serge Chaloff.
But Pomeroy accepted the challenge. "I came in April 1963 to the MIT band's first rehearsal expecting them to be in pretty good shape since they had just had their spring performance the weekend before," he said. "They played their first tune and it probably lasted three or four minutes and it was very, very bad. It was horrible. I wondered, 'Should I say there was a miscommunication and that I can't continue here?' And instead, what came out was, 'Well, let's roll up our sleeves and get to work.'"
Thus began Pomeroy's 22-year stint as founder and director of jazz ensembles at MIT. He'll return to MIT to direct the Festival Jazz Ensemble (FJE) in a special anniversary concert celebrating the 40th anniversary of jazz at MIT on Saturday, May 3 at 8 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium. The concert will feature music from throughout the history of the FJE and a special performance by a jazz band of MIT alumni spanning four decades.
Jazz emerges at MIT
Prior to Pomeroy's arrival, MIT had two other student-led jazz ensembles--the MIT Jazz Society founded in the early 1950s and a band called the MIT Techtonians a few years later. This was the group that later, under Pomeroy's leadership, became the Festival Jazz Ensemble.
Under Pomeroy, the FJE won wide recognition through their concerts and festival appearances in the United States as well as their 1970 performance at Switzerland's prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival.
David Bondelevitch (S.B. 1985), a film music editor and a former FJE trumpet player returning to play in the May 3 concert, recalled Pomeroy's generosity in having the ensemble perform some works that Bondelevitch wrote as a student.
"This was really above and beyond the call of duty," said Bondelevitch. "My work was nowhere near the level of what the band was used to playing, but I was thrilled to have it performed publicly."
For current FJE musician Eric Mumpower, working with Pomeroy this semester has been a rewarding opportunity. "I've never had a director who rehearsed an ensemble with such focus and blazing efficiency," said the baritone saxophonist, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science. "I'm sure I've never before learned so much about music from a single person in such a short time."
Since Pomeroy's retirement from MIT in 1985, the FJE has been led by Jamshied Sharifi (1985-92), James O'Dell (1992-99) and Frederick Harris (1999 to present).
"Some of the people in the band are 18 or 19 and were hardly born when I left the band," Pomeroy said. "I still learn from people that I play with. Age is no barrier whatsoever to sharing musical ideas. That's very fulfilling. Music keeps you young in your head."
Tickets for the May 3 performance are $3 at the door. For ticket information, call 253-2826. For more information about jazz at MIT and a brief timeline of its history, see http://web.mit.edu/mta/www/music/performance/fje40.html.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 30, 2003.