History of Jazz at MIT
In the early 1950s, the MIT Jazz Society was founded by a small group of enthusiastic students. The construction of Kresge Auditorium in 1955 provided a space for students and local musicians to jam and eventually present concerts. When professional musicians passed through Boston, the MIT Jazz Society would try to engage them for a concert. Paul Padget, a student at MIT from 1955-57, in a letter to The Technology Review, recalled a most memorable event from that era:
"The MIT Jazz Society's biggest break came when Stan Getz brought his quintet to Storyville...we of course, asked for Getz and were quickly turned down. However, Stan was riding up Mass. Ave. and asked Charlie Bourgeois, who worked for George Wein, about the "acoustically perfect" Kresge Auditorium and mentioned that he would like to play there sometime. Well, one phone call from Charlie to me and we're off and running. We had about four days notice and we were on the phone to everyone. We had volunteers sitting up nights creating posters that were hand-lettered because we were so short of time and money. But the concert was standing room only, and the MIT Jazz Society became established."
At some point in the late 50s or early 60s the MIT Techtonians emerged. This big band was led by students and performed for various functions around campus. Klaus Leipmann, Director of the MIT Music Section at the time, decided that the ensemble should have professional leadership. In 1963, at request of the students, Leipmann approached Herb Pomeroy to direct the Techtonians. By that time, Pomeroy had earned a local and national reputation as an outstanding soloist, bandleader, and teacher. He recalled in a recent interview his first encounter with the MIT Techtonians:
"The band had just performed their spring concert the previous night, so I expected them to be in decent shape. I listened to their first piece and it sounded terrible, but in that three-minute span I made a twenty-two year decision. I sensed an integrity and drive on the part of the students and they seemed like very good young people. So, we began building with just one rehearsal a week."
The band remained the Techtonians for about a year before it was decided that name be changed to MIT Concert Jazz Band. By the 1964-65 academic year the band began to show great improvement and began participating in jazz festivals. The interest in the group expanded to the point where Pomeroy felt a second ensemble should be created. Fresh from being on the road with Woody Herman's band, Everett Longstreth was asked by Pomeroy to lead another ensemble. Longstreth had performed with Pomeroy's 1955 professional ensemble and was known as a very gifted arranger. He remained as director of the MIT Concert Jazz Band for nearly thirty years. Longstreth's contribution to the quality of jazz bands overall at MIT was extremely important. As the second ensemble was a training group, more fundamentals were stressed and the performances were limited to about two to three a year on campus. Pomeroy's ensemble was attending collegiate jazz festivals regularly, so it made sense to name the band the Festival Jazz Ensemble, while the second band became the Concert Jazz Band.
The MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble regularly participated in esteemed collegiate jazz festivals such as the Villanova Jazz Festival and the Nortre Dame Jazz Festival (which began in 1959). The ensemble was consistently recognized and awarded for its musicianship and innovative programming, perhaps the most important musical legacy and tradition that Herb Pomeroy bestowed upon the Festival Jazz Ensemble. Through his teaching position at the Berklee College of Music and through the musicians in his professional ensembles, he had contact with a wealth of student and professional jazz composers of exceptional abilities. Many of these students and professional colleagues were encouraged by Pomeroy to compose for the Festival Jazz Ensemble. As a result, the band had a unique voice and built a reputation as an innovative force. Students from the Festival Jazz Ensemble also began a tradition of composing for the band. This idea of performing original music composed specifically for the members of the ensemble is congruent with Pomeroy's Ellington-influenced philosophy of "bringing out individual personalities" within the context of the full ensemble. A small list of some of the outstanding writers for the band during Pomeroy's era include Richard Orr, Greg Hopkins, Hal Crook, John La Porta, Mike Hughes, Jackson Stock, Tiger Okoshi, and of course, Jamshied Sharifi. Sharifi was a student in the ensemble and became the second director upon Pomeroy's retirement from MIT in 1985.
Along with developing a tradition of innovative programming and participation in outstanding collegiate jazz festivals, Pomeroy also held invitational jazz festivals at the Institute. These festivals usually involved local Boston-area or New England colleges. One example was a two-day festival held in May of 1968, adjudicated by George Wein, Robert Share, and Pomeroy himself. The event also featured a performance by the Gary Burton Quartet. Pomeroy also encouraged sharing concert programs with local bands. A concert in March of 1978 involved both MIT jazz ensembles and the Harvard University Jazz Band, directed by Tom Everett, and the University of Lowell Studio Orchestra, directed by Nat Paella.
One of the most important honors awarded the Festival Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Herb Pomeroy came in 1970 when the band was invited to participate in the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The Festival Jazz Ensemble along with Kent State University and North Texas State University, were the first United States college big bands to participate at this festival. When one considers the magnitude of the formal jazz programs in existence at both Kent State and North Texas State, MIT's selection to participate in this esteemed event is an outstanding tribute to the hard work of the students and Pomeroy's unbelievable musical and personal leadership.
The year 1983 marked the twentieth anniversary of the founding of jazz ensembles at MIT and many alums came back to honor Herb Pomeroy's contributions. In 1985, Jamshied Sharifi, a graduate of both MIT and the Berklee College of Music, became the second director of the Festival Jazz Ensemble. Sharifi, an extremely talented composer and arranger, contributed a large amount of his own music to the FJE library, beginning as a student playing in the ensemble, while Pomeroy was still directing, up until the time he left the band in 1992.
Along with his contributions as a composer and arranger, Sharifi achieved great success with the ensemble at jazz festivals, receiving honors at Nortre Dame and Boston University. Additionally, Sharifi initiated a recording project that produced two acclaimed CDs, "MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble", in 1990 and "Go On" in 1992. The two recordings feature pieces from Herb Pomeroy's era with the FJE and many of Sharifi's own innovative compositions.
In the fall of 1992, James O'Dell became the third director of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble. Formerly O'Dell was Director of Bands at Boston University where he initiated the university's first formal jazz program, which included an outstanding collegiate jazz festival that the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble frequently participated in. The spring of O'Dell's first year provided the opportunity to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the founding of the jazz program at MIT. Both Pomeroy and Sharifi were invited back for a special evening of collaborative music-making.
O'Dell continued the FJE tradition of festival participation and the creation of new music. His successful New England Collegiate Festival, begun at Boston University, was held at MIT. These festivals regularly included performances by outstanding jazz artists such as Phil Woods and Terence Blanchard, and were often adjudicated by Herb Pomeroy. Through his association with the Boston Jazz Composers Alliance, O'Dell continued to enhance the FJE with new works by professional composers,students from Berklee and from MIT.
Throughout the tenures of Pomeroy, Sharifi, and O'Dell, small group jazz always played some role in the MIT jazz program. Often student led, each director encouraged the formation of jazz combos. This was continued by their successor.
In the fall of 1999, Fred Harris became the fourth director of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble. Under his direction, the FJE continues commissioning, recording and collaborating with visiting artists, and MIT performers and ensembles. Recent guest artists have included Joe Lovano, Steve Turre, Ran Blake, Don Byron, Kenny Werner, and Magali Souriau among many others. In 2000 the FJE honored Herb Pomeroy's 70th birthday with a special concert and series of events which to date are celebrated in honor of Pomeroy every year..
In 2013, FJE celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of jazz ensembles at MIT. Each spring the ensemble hosts the annual Herb Pomeroy Memorial Concert in Kresge Auditorium in honor of the “Father of Jazz at MIT.”