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Creative musician's sweet notes cherished

Jazz trumpet player Herb Pomeroy dies

Raising trumpet to lips, Herb Pomeroy would play improvised solos so thoughtful and textured it was if the notes danced gracefully in his ear and mind long before they slipped out the bell of his horn.

"He was one of the most skillful and clever of improvisers," said the vibraphonist Gary Burton. "A lot of improvisers, when they soloed, played familiar jazz licks, as we say. Herb was one of the players where you could really see his mind at work. When he played solos, you could see him telling stories, developing themes, creating serious content."

During a career that became a hefty chapter in the history of jazz, Mr. Pomeroy played with bebop luminaries such as Charlie Parker, put together seminal ensembles in Boston, and helped create the field of jazz education as a teacher at Berklee College of Music, MIT, and New England Conservatory.

He died of cancer Saturday afternoon while lying in a bed on the sun porch of his house on Rust Island in Gloucester, surrounded by windows and views he had held dear since his childhood in the North Shore community. Mr. Pomeroy, who was 77, had been a pivotal figure in Boston's jazz scene for decades.

"In this history of Boston jazz, his is the number one name that I think would come up on any musician's list," Burton said.

"Instead of six degrees of separation, you could always connect everybody through Herb Pomeroy," said Bob Blumenthal, a former Globe jazz critic. "He was just the center of it all."

Musicians who sat in with a Pomeroy ensemble, played in his bands, or attended his classes were only one degree away from a who's who of jazz royalty. Along with Burton and Parker, Mr. Pomeroy played at various times with Ornette Coleman, Stan Getz, Lionel Hampton, Coleman Hawkins, Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, and Sonny Rollins.

During four decades at Berklee, 22 years at MIT, and a stint at New England Conservatory, Mr. Pomeroy taught hundreds of students. His bands played at festivals alongside the orchestras of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and backed singers including Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

"I think it's fair to say, without hyperbole, that there's no single figure in the New England jazz scene who has done more to influence not only jazz performance, but also jazz education," said Fred Harris, director of wind ensembles at MIT, where Mr. Pomeroy founded the Festival Jazz Ensemble.

A passion for teaching and the desire for a reliable income to support his family prompted Mr. Pomeroy to tour less than most performers of his caliber. Nonetheless, musicians say, he left a lasting mark with his trumpet.

"There's just a sound -- the way he holds a tone, the distribution of notes -- and you hear living history," said Ran Blake, a pianist and teacher at New England Conservatory who performed with Mr. Pomeroy.

"He was an extremely warm, concise man, and so his solos tended to be warm and poetic and audacious, I would say," said Anthony Weller of Gloucester, a guitarist who performed in small ensembles with Mr. Pomeroy in recent years. "He surprised us constantly. There was never a sense of, 'Oh, I've heard him play that before.' "

For Mr. Pomeroy, performance always trumped recorded music. Burton, a student of Mr. Pomeroy's at Berklee who later became a teaching colleague, said he wished his friend had recorded more to leave a "permanent record of his talent and contributions."

"I don't really believe in recorded music," Mr. Pomeroy told the Globe in 1995, when he retired from Berklee, from which he received an honorary doctorate. "I think music is such a special thing that it should be just for those who create it and listeners willing to take the trouble to come and hear it."

Born in Gloucester, Irving Herbert Pomeroy III began playing professionally as a teenager. He spent a year at Harvard, then left to become a full-time musician. At 23, he played with Parker, the saxophonist who helped found bebop. After playing in bands led by Hampton and Kenton, he formed the Herb Pomeroy Big Band, which performed often at the fabled Stables jazz club in Copley Square.

Mr. Pomeroy had studied music at Schillinger House, which preceded Berklee, and was a regular at Stables when the college's founder, Larry Berk, asked him to join the faculty.

"I had been working at the Stables, which was good, but it paid $60 per week, which wasn't much when you had a wife and two kids," Mr. Pomeroy told the Globe in 1995. "So I accepted the job for economic reasons."

His courses, including one on Ellington, became legendary. "I came to Berklee as a student when I was 17 years old," Burton said. "Herb was, even at that point, the most charismatic and important teacher at the school."

That warmth carried over into his work with ensembles, where he was known as much for his patience and encouragement as for his exacting standards.

"He was a class act, and he also had this integrity and honesty," said his wife, Dodie Gibbons. "I loved that about him."

Along with his wife, Mr. Pomeroy leaves a daughter, Perry of Hamilton; a son, Eden of Lake Worth, Fla., two sisters, Paula Pomeroy Rix of Ormond Beach, Fla., and Paige Pomeroy Marto of Cookeville, Tenn.; two stepdaughters, Colleen Gibbons of Buffalo and Bridget Gibbons of Bronxville, N.Y.; two stepsons, Kevin Gibbons of West Hartford, Conn., and Daniel Gibbons of San Francisco; 11 grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. on Sept. 9 in Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street in Boston.