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Jymie Merritt 1926–2020

The Jazz Messenger and Forerunner appeared on 18 albums with Art Blakey and was a pioneer of the electric bass

Jymie Merritt
Jymie Merritt

Jymie Merritt, a bassist and composer who was best known as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers but was also a trailblazer in his own right, died April 10 in Philadelphia. He was three weeks shy of his 94th birthday.

His death was announced on social media by his son, Mike Merritt, also a bassist (and member of Conan O’Brien’s TV house band since 1993). The cause of death was liver cancer, with which Merritt had struggled for years.

A native of the rich jazz incubator known as Philadelphia, Merritt grew up playing with the likes of Benny Golson and Philly Joe Jones, before transitioning to the new sounds of rhythm & blues in the late 1940s and early ’50s. He returned to jazz in time to join one of the seminal Blakey lineups, playing on the Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’ and several other classics, then moved on to work with Chet Baker, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lee Morgan. Merritt also led his own band, the Forerunners, from 1962 until his passing.

Notably, Merritt was among the first players of the electric bass, adopting the hybrid Ampeg transducer/amplifier system for upright instruments in about 1949 and transitioning to a solid-body Fender Precision in 1951.

Known for his steady, harmonically advanced playing style, which typically found him at the front of the beat, Merritt was also an accomplished and adventurous composer. He first gained notice with his composition “Nommo,” which became a staple of Max Roach’s repertoire during Merritt’s tenure with him; he also wrote “Absolutions” and “Angela” before retreating from the national jazz scene to concentrate on work in his native Philadelphia. From that point on, especially with the Forerunners, he focused on his own compositions.

“When a friend played Ellington’s ‘Jack the Bear’ with Jimmy Blanton as bassist, my response was to want to become a composer, not a bassist,” Merritt recalled in a 2017 interview with the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. “It only dawned on me later that I had identified strongly with the bass on hearing that piece.”

James Raleigh Merritt was born May 3, 1926 in Philadelphia to R.H. Merritt, a real estate developer, and the former Agnes Robinson, a choir director and piano teacher. (Not exactly a nickname, “Jymie” was simply an unusual—and thus memorable—way of spelling “Jimmy,” the name he was most often called.) The younger Merritt began playing tenor saxophone in his teenage years. Drafted into the army in 1944, however, he developed sinus problems that forced him after his World War II service to quit the saxophone. His mother then surprised him with the gift of an upright bass, on which he received classical training from the Ornstein School of Music and Philadelphia Orchestra bassist Carl Torello.

Despite his classical training, however, Merritt’s interest lay in jazz, which had intrigued him after hearing the recording of Ellington with Blanton. He began holding jam sessions at his house that included Jimmy and Percy Heath, John Coltrane, Jones, and Golson.

In 1949, however, he took a touring job with rhythm & blues singer Bull Moose Jackson’s band, remaining with him until 1953. It was during this time, prodded by bandmate Golson, that Merritt began playing electric bass, carrying it with him through stints with Chris Powell and the Blue Flames, another rhythm & blues band, and singer/guitarist B.B. King.

In 1958 Art Blakey invited Merritt to join his band, the Jazz Messengers; it was a reunion with both Golson and the acoustic bass. Moanin’, released that same year, was the first of 18 albums Merritt would make with the Messengers—including the forthcoming 1959 session Just Coolin. He was the one constant in four years of frequent turnover that saw (among others) Golson replaced by Hank Mobley, then Wayne Shorter; though Blakey and his hard-bop approach also remained a constant, there were numerous stylistic nuances that evolved during that period, and Merritt adapted himself to all of them. He finally left the band in 1962 to recover from an illness.

Returning to Philadelphia, Merritt founded the Forerunners, a group that quickly became known for its tight chemistry and use of difficult polyrhythms and polyharmonies. While the band was never a major force in jazz—staying strictly local—it made a profound impression in Philadelphia, especially on saxophonist Odean Pope, an early Forerunner who would eventually join Merritt in drummer Max Roach’s band.

Merritt joined Roach in 1965; the two musicians also made up Sonny Rollins’ rhythm section during a 1966 European trio tour. With Roach, Merritt introduced some of the compositions he’d been honing with the Forerunners, including “Nommo.” The 7/4 tune became a tentpole in Roach’s concert repertoire and, later, an important staple among avant-garde musicians.

The bassist also performed and recorded with Sonny Clark, Chet Baker, Jimmy Smith, and Dizzy Gillespie while working with Roach. However, he frequently struggled with his health during these years, and his gigging was inconsistent. He joined trumpeter Lee Morgan’s band in 1970 and was with the group at Slugs’ in Manhattan when Morgan was shot and killed there in 1972. The lasting trauma of that night took Merritt off the road and out of New York for good.

Returning to Philadelphia, Merritt settled into his work with the Forerunners, crafting complex music that would prove increasingly influential as years passed, even as it was never officially recorded (or performed outside the city). After he was diagnosed with cancer in the 1980s, Merritt cut back drastically on his performance schedule. He was most often to be found composing at his digital workstation, though he continued performing off and on with the Forerunners into the 2010s.

Merritt is survived by his wife of 40 years, the former Ave Davis (a previous marriage, to Dorothy Small, ended in divorce); two daughters, Mharlyn and Jamie Merritt; and three sons, Marlon, Marvon, and Mike Merritt. He was predeceased by another son, Martyn Merritt.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.