A Newport Snapshot: The Herb Pomeroy Big Band, 1958

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By Dick Vacca

It’s mid July, and that means the 2016 edition of America’s oldest jazz festival, at Newport, is just weeks away. Boston jazz musicians, starting of course with pianist George Wein, the event’s founder, have always been a presence at Newport, and sometimes they’ve provided some sensational music. So it was in 1958, at the fifth annual Newport Jazz Festival. That was the year celebrated so lovingly on film in Jazz on a Summer’s Day. One performance that didn’t make it into the movie, though, was the set played by the Boston big band of Herb Pomeroy.

Newport in those years had “Critics’ Choice,” a day when members of the media picked and presented artists they thought were worthy of greater recognition. The Randy Weston Trio was one critic’s choice, French pianist Bernard Peiffer another, and the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra a third. It was selected by Down Beat’s Associate Editor, Dom Cerulli, himself a Bostonian, who knew the Pomeroy band well from his days as Down Beat’s Boston correspondent.

The Pomeroy band’s popularity and reputation had been building since its formation in late 1955. They were featured at the Apollo Theater and Birdland in New York, and released a critically acclaimed album on the Roulette label (Life Is a Many Splendored Gig). And they had a number in their book that had been written for them by George Duvivier, who had served as Jimmie Lunceford’s last arranger, from 1945 until Lunceford’s death in 1947. George wanted to write something for Herb’s band that captured the prodigious spirit of the Lunceford Orchestra.

The Pomeroy band played a half-dozen tunes in their Saturday set, including a pair from the Roulette LP, Neal Bridge’s “The Green Horn” and Bob Freedman’s “On the Other World.” There was one from the pen of Arif Mardin, then a Berklee student, “Blues for Myself,” and the finale, Duvivier’s “The Lunceford Touch.”

Crowd and critics alike loved the band. Wrote John McLellan in the Boston Traveler, “Boston can well be proud of the Saturday afternoon appearance of the Herb Pomeroy band. It was a big-time debut which completely flipped critics and musicians as well as the audience…The band was easily the surprise hit of the Festival!”

Down Beat’s Don Gold praised the Pomeroy band for its “unusually fresh array of charts and stirring ensemble sound,” faulting only its lack of solo strength. Gold praised the “scorching” “Lunceford Touch,” stating, “in this writer’s opinion, (it) was the single most effective big band performance of the festival…The band made a solid impression on the Newport audience, which applauded the band’s efforts with great enthusiasm.”

The New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett was another convert, writing that “Herb Pomeroy and his big band played half a dozen blazing Kentonish-Basielike arrangements and then—in its final number, “The Lunceford Touch,” done in the manner of the Lunceford band—got off some brass figures that were so loud and so brilliantly executed that the air in the park seemed to be rolled right back to the bleachers.”

Many’s the time I’ve wished that performance had been captured in Jazz on a Summer’s Day.

The funny thing is, the band almost didn’t play “Lunceford.” In a 2005 interview, Herb told me, “It was not our style, it was a historical style, 20 years old, but it was a crowd-pleaser. At Newport, I was backstage deciding what we were going to play. The guys didn’t want to play it, they wanted to play the music that was where we were at right now, so I wasn’t sure if we should play it or not, thinking about the band’s integrity, my own integrity. Well, we played it, and Metronome said we were the best big band at Newport, and they gave a lot of the credit to “The Lunceford Touch.” The other big bands that year? Ellington, Maynard Ferguson, and Marshall Brown’s Newport International Jazz Band.

So back to the present, and this year’s Newport. I’m sure there will be at least one under-recognized artist whose performance will shine on social media, and who will leave the critics as wide-eyed as Herb Pomeroy’s big band did in 1958.

Dick Vacca is the author of The Boston Jazz Chronicles, and writes about jazz history on his blog, The Troy Street Observer. (Photo courtesy of Berklee College of Music)

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