In July 2016, Pauline Bilsky at JazzBoston asked me to contribute a guest post on the Newport Jazz Festival to their blog—and to give it some Boston flavor. I wrote about a Saturday afternoon in 1958 when the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra took the place by storm. What a great afternoon! The Pomeroy Orchestra displayed its usual finely honed ensemble work, and fresh, original charts (it always was a writers’ band). Now seven years later, it is time to repost an updated version of that piece.

1958 Newport Jazz Festival program cover

Program cover, 1958 Newport Jazz Festival

Boston jazz musicians, starting of course with pianist George Wein, the event’s founder, have always been a presence at Newport, often contributing some sensational music. So it was in 1958, at the fifth annual Newport Jazz Festival, 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 Herb Pomeroy Orchestra.

Newport in those years had a “Critics’ Choice” segment, an afternoon when members of the media picked and presented artists they thought were worthy of greater recognition. One writer in 1958 chose the Randy Weston Trio, another the French pianist Bernard Peiffer, and a third the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra. Down Beat’s Associate Editor, Dom Cerulli, himself a Bostonian, chose the Pomeroy outfit. He knew the Pomeroy band well from his days as Down Beat’s Boston correspondent.

The Pomeroy band’s popularity and reputation had grown steadily since its formation in late 1955. They were featured at the Apollo Theater and Birdland in New York in 1957, 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 bassist George Duvivier, Jimmie Lunceford’s last arranger, wrote for them. George sat in with the band at a rehearsal one evening, and liked it. He 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.” They included another original tune, “Blues for Myself,” written by Arif Mardin, then a Berklee student. For a finale, the band played 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.”

The funny thing is, the Pomeroy Orchestra 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 Lunceford Touch” was a great moment for the band. Many’s the time I’ve wished that performance had been captured in Jazz on a Summer’s Day. It’s something I wish we all could see, and savor.