Jazz lost a brilliant and influential musician last week. He was also, for me, my most important mentor and a very good friend. Herb Pomeroy could have been one of the most famous jazz performer/arrangers in the second half of the 20th century, but instead of touring and recording, he decided to spend more than 40 years teaching jazz at Berklee. You can read more about him and his career here.
Herb was a personal role model and inspiration for me from the time I first heard his band when I was in high school, through my years in the Festival Jazz Band when I was a student at MIT (including one year we were chosen Outstanding Ensemble at the prestigious Notre Dame Intercollegiate Jazz Festival), and when I took his famous courses at Berklee. After moving to Los Angeles, I came back to Boston three times to see Herb, once in 1995 when he had his retirement party from Berklee, and again in 2000 and 2005 when MIT threw birthday parties for him. There's not a day that has passed that I don't think about Herb and hope that somehow as an educator I have lived up to his incredibly high standards. The world has lost not only a genius of a jazz performer and arranger, but a truly inspirational human being who influenced literally thousands of young musicians. Herb will be remembered by them forever.
Herb distilled a set of rules for jazz composition and arranging that reminded me very much of the strict rules Bach (and J.J. Fux) setup for writing counterpoint. Herb's method was a brilliant way of looking at music composition from a completely different viewpoint. Instead of composing harmonically by structuring chord progressions, Herb chose to write each melodic line individually around a set of rules that would create incidental harmonies when well-written melodic lines happened to cross each other. It certainly wasn't original to Herb; he learned a lot from Duke Ellington (and one of the courses he taught was on Duke's techniques) as well as Gil Evans and others who rejected traditional jazz arranging techniques; but it was Herb who structured these rules into a teaching system.
I learned a lot as a teacher from him. One was that having high standards was a necessity. It was very hard to get into his class, and getting an "A" was even harder. This was a huge departure from the way most classes at Berklee were taught.
The second important thing that I learned was that personal interaction was more important than lecturing. Herb gave homework assignments in every class meeting, and the first thing he would do in each class meeting was sit down with each student individually (but in front of the class) and go through their homework and make corrections. The individual attention gave each student a relationship with the teacher, and correcting in front of the class allowed every student to learn from every other student as well. It created a community feeling among the class members that I never felt in any other classes at Berklee. Herb was always the first to be excited when a student did something brilliant.
For a good part of the 20th century, virtually every important American composer would spend time in Paris studying with the brilliant teacher Nadia Boulanger. If you were a jazz composer in the US, there was a good chance that you would take the time to study with Herb. A list of his students is overwhelming, he had over 1000 students in the time he was at Berklee, many of whom went on to be some of the most famous musicians in jazz.
I remember when I was in high school looking at colleges, I was flipping through the MIT course catalog and saw Herb's photo. I did a double-take. What the hell was Herb doing at MIT? He conducted the jazz band at MIT, and that fact alone was a major factor in my decision to go there. I figured if Herb was there, the school couldn't be that bad. Herb told a funny story about how he ended up directing the MIT jazz band which you can read in MIT's obituary listing. He had been asked to sit in on a rehearsal with the intention of taking over, but the band was so bad, he asked for a break so he could leave. He sat in his car on Amherst Alley trying to think of a polite way to say no, and finally decided to give it a go anyway. He often remarked that to us the relationships he forged with MIT students were more satisfying than the Berklee students because for the engineers, jazz was an avocation, something they were doing purely for the love of music. (A lot like why he preferred high school sports to pro sports, and a viewpoint he shared with my father.) The Berklee students were often too focused on getting an A or worrying about finding a job or impressing somebody.
Herb had been born into a line of dentists and was expected to follow suit, entering Harvard as a freshman. But he loved jazz, and even though he was a brilliant man, he didn't fit in at Harvard. I remember Herb explaining his decision to leave. Herb was walking up the stairs to go to the library at the school and a man burst out and ran down the stairs, grabbed Herb by the shoulders, and screamed, "Have you ever had an intellectual orgasm?!?!?"
Herb said he knew there and then that he did not want to stay at Harvard.
My own introduction to Herb was equally amusing. I, of course, had heard his professional band many times and wanted to play in his band at MIT. I was a little star-struck at the audition and quite nervous. Without hearing a note, he looked at my name and asked "Is your father the football coach from Swampscott?," which of course was true. Herb LOVED sports, especially high school sports. He lived his entire life in Gloucester, and they play Swampscott in most sports. Here I was, nervous about meeting my idol, and Herb was excited to meet me because of my father. He had an amazing way with people. Years later we finally had Herb over for dinner.
One year at Symphony Hall there was a special fund-raising concert for former Red Sox star Tony Conigliaro (also from Swampscott), who had a series of personal tragedies. Frank Sinatra was featured at the concert with Herb's band backing him up. My father bought tickets since we were close to Tony C and his family. Not only did I get to see Herb backing up Frank, but because it was the day we were supposed to fly to Chicago with the MIT band for the festival, I got to fly a day later with Herb, instead of with the rest of the band. It was great to spend some personal time with him. I remember one year at the festival, the judges were really down on the band. In fact, the comments the judges wrote were outright rude and condescending. These judges were huge jazz names I had idolized. Herb had a nice way of diffusing the criticism by pointing out that certain people had an expectation of what a jazz band would look like, and the motley crew of pale white-faced engineers from MIT certainly didn't fall into that preconceived notion. They had clearly decided what they wanted before they heard us play.
When Herb retired from the MIT Jazz Band at the end of my senior year, we decided to buy him a gift. He was notorious for this ratty briefcase he'd had for decades, so we bought him a new briefcase, which we wanted to inscribe with his initials. This meant someone had to ask him his middle name.
Herb laughed and explained Herb was his middle name. His real first name was Irving, which he explained was a family name. In fact, he was Irving Herbert the 3rd. He said almost everyone in his family had Irving in their name somewhere, including his Aunt Irvina.
We ended up putting HIP on the suitcase anyway, because it was just too good a set of initials for a jazz musician.
And Herb kept using the ratty old briefcase forever.
I learned a lot from Herb and consider myself incredibly lucky to have been lead trumpet for the MIT band in my senior year. At Berklee, I took his first two classes and then graduated early. It always bothered me that I had left without taking his third and final class. I felt like Luke Skywalker in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, leaving my jazz Jedi master before I had completed my training. I had always hoped to go back for a semester, but it didn't happen before he retired. That's one of the biggest regrets in my life now that he's gone.
I'm very glad I saw him at the MIT reunion in 2005. He was in good shape and that's how I want to remember him. After my own father, Herb was probably the single biggest influence in my life, and I'll always miss him.