Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Bassist Jymie Merritt
Journalist Dorothy Kilgallen led off her popular New York Evening Journal column (syndicated in 140 papers) with a 1963 story about Philly bassist Jymie Merritt that traveled around the world. Turns out, Merritt was a bit miffed at drummer Art Blakey.
When he quit the Jazz Messengers, Merritt said he just wanted to “get off the road and rest awhile,” but Kilgallen wrote, “…the real reason was a dispute with Blakey when the leader forced Merritt to pay for his own overweight baggage on airplane trips, and Jymie uses an electrically amplified bass with a heavy 90-watt amplifier and speaker…” add his upright bass and that’s a lot of baggage!
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Merritt was one of the first musicians to embrace the electrified bass, even inventing his own hybrid transducer/amplified system for the upright called the Ampeg, a fact that marks him now as a visionary. But Merritt drew quite a few raspberries from traditionalists like writer Leonard Feather who was horrified when Dizzy Gillespie insisted Merritt be in his band.
But no one should have been surprised that the resourceful son of Raleigh and Agnes Merritt, both educated and enterprising young people from the south who moved north, would do so well. His father, an alumnus of the Tuskegee Institute, was a close confidant of scientist George Washington Carver. His mother taught piano and elementary school. They both helped build the Vine Memorial Baptist Church.
For decades, Jymie Merritt was the go-to bassist for giants whether it was touring and recording in his early days with blues and R&B musicians like singer/saxophonist Bull Moose Jackson or B.B. King or jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, trumpeter Chet Baker, and drummers Max Roach and Art Blakey later on. He moved easily from genre to genre, adapting and enhancing every one.
Merritt moved to New York City in 1957 to join Blakey’s band with a lineup that many feel was one of his best—and they ALL were Philadelphians: pianist Bobby Timmons, saxophonist Benny Golson, and trumpeter Lee Morgan. Check out the band on Timmon’s composition “Moanin” (Merritt has a remarkable bass solo at 10:50).
In the 1960s, Jymie Merritt formed his own ensemble, The Forerunners, which included founding member saxophonist Odean Pope. The group played his cross-rhythmic and ethereally complex, poly-harmonic compositions, utilizing what Merritt called “The System.” Quoted in a short film for Jazz Night in America titled Jymie Merritt: The Beat Goes Deep, Pope said, “He had his own concept. He was just so fluent in what he was doing. To me, playing his music was like going to the highest university in the whole world.”
“Nommo,” a hip and loose hard bop composition in 7/4 by Merritt, is one of his best-known compositions and was recorded on Max Roach’s album Drums Unlimited in 1966. (Listen for Merritt’s bass solo at 7:12). He took the title from a West African concept—the power of the spoken word can create harmony and balance in an upside-down world.
Bassist Mike Merritt talked about the city of Philadelphia’s impact on his father’s life and music.
“Jymie was never the one to see the city in his rear-view mirror. I remember when [Philadelphia saxophonist] Benny Golson was working in LA, in the studios, and called up my dad to move out there. And Jymie was thinking about it. But I think he felt his music was best expressed through a Philly prism. I mean, the giants in jazz were here.”
Awarded a Pew Fellowship in 2016, Merritt was a previous recipient of the Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Award, a Living Legend Award from the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and the Performing Arts, and was recognized by the Philadelphia City Council in 2013.
One of the most inspiring aspects of Jymie Merritt’s life was his continuing interest in science and technology. Unlike many seniors from his generation who ran for the hills when faced with any kind of software, Merritt revelled in the exploration of the digital world until the end of his life at 93.
Merritt saw the possibilities of digital composition and it influenced his musical conceptions. “The shift from analog to digital united the traditional instrument with the computer,” he told the Pew Center for Arts and Culture, where he was a fellow. “My interest is to provide composition prototypes that honor the past while envisioning an increasingly digital future.”
Jymie Merritt always looked forward, even in his 90s, and he’ll always be a major player in Philadelphia’s jazz pantheon.