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Remembering Jymie Merritt, Gentleman and Innovator of Jazz

Courtesy of the artist
Jymie Merritt

Pioneering bassist and composer Jymie Merritt was born in Philadelphia in 1926. He died on Friday, April 10th, 2020 at age 93. No cause was given by his son, who posted the sad news on social media.

Watch Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers performing Moanin' with bassist Jymie Merritt

As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reported in 2016, he made a name for himself nationally but also founded a groundbreaking Philadelphia-based band that continues to inspire today’s generation of jazz artists.

NPR’s Jazz Night in America honored Jymie Merritt with a special concert in January, 2016 at World Café Live. Watch the video here.

Radio script:

MUSIC:  Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, "A Night in Tunisia"

Susan Lewis:  By the 1950s, Jymie Merritt was playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in New York, then with trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker, and later Max Roach.  His career was characterized by innovation, even as to the instrument he played. 

Warren Oree:  It looked like an electric bass, but it wasn’t. And it turns out, Jymie Merritt introduced — pioneered — something called the "ampeg" bass.

Jymie Merritt

SL:  Philadelphia bassists Warren Oree and Kevin MacConnell

WO:  It had its own sound, its own unique sound.

Kevin MacConnell: He was also one of the first bass players in Philadelphia in the late 1940s (with Benny Golson, playing the blues) who picked up the electric bass.  

SL:  In the early '60s, Merritt formed and fronted the Forerunners in Philadelphia, developed his own method of playing chord inversions and harmonics, and was composing,

MUSIC:  "Nommo," Lee Morgan, Live at the Lighthouse

WO:  There’s a song he wrote in 7-4 time, which is sort of an usual time. It's called "Nommo."  And this he was playing when he was with Lee Morgan.  But it gives you an idea of where he was headed. He's quite a composer and he’s a real hip cat, you know, a real nice dude. 

KM: A real nice gentleman, and actually had me sit in on the bass with Kenny.

WO:  That's cool. 

KM: I was scared to death, playing for him.

SL:  Among his other honors, in 2013, the Clef Club of Philadelphia gave Jymie Merritt its Living Legend Jazz Award. 


"Jymie Merritt, The Forerunner" on Jazz Night in America on WRTI: Sunday, April 10th at 8 pm. Bassist Jymie Merritt's place on the historical register of jazz has been cemented by his work with major players like Art Blakey, Max Roach and Lee Morgan. But there's much more music that he hasn't received due credit for: his own. Starting in the 1960s, he began developing a personal polyrhythmic concept and a working ensemble called the Forerunners in his hometown of Philadelphia. It's rich in progressive complexity, but left a mark on many Philadelphians like saxophonist Odean Pope, and his son, Mike Merritt (now the bassist on Conan O'Brien's late-night show band). Now, Mike has taken up the mantle and reassembled the band to finally record his father's music. Jazz Night In America goes to Philly and World Cafe Live to witness The Forerunners live in concert.

The concert broadcast on Jazz Night in America features the Forerunners, the progressive ensemble first formed by Jymie Merritt in 1962, performing compositions he wrote between 1964 and 2009. Now led by his son, bassist Mike Merritt, the other longtime members of The Forerunners playing are Warren McLendon, piano and percussion; Colmare Duncan, piano; Alan Nelson, drums; Terry Lawson, tenor saxophone; and original member Odean Pope, tenor saxophone.  More information

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.