Jymie Merritt-Biography

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Jymie Merritt has worked in jazz, R&B, and blues. In the early 1950s he toured with rock and roll pioneers Bullmoose Jackson and Chris Powell moving on to work with legendary bluesman BB King from 1955 to 1957. In 1957 Jymie moved to Manhattan, New York, to work with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The Messenger ensemble Merritt joined featured his friend Benny Golson as well as Bobby Timmons and Lee Morgan. Merritt’s touring and recording with Blakey extended until 1962, when health issues prevented him from touring.

By 1964 Merritt was back, working with the trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker, and is featured prominently in Baker’s unfinished autobiography published under the title As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir.

From 1965 to 1968 Merritt worked with the drummer, composer and activist Max Roach, not only in the rhythm section but as a composer, recording “Nommo” on Roach’s critically acclaimed 1966 Atlantic album The Drum Also Waltzes. “Nommo” would earn Merritt a nomination for Best Jazz Composer in Downbeat Magazine’s Critics Poll.

Merritt left Max Roach in the late 1960s to work with another jazz icon and one of the founders of be-bop trumpet master Dizzy Gillespie appearing with Gillespie’s band on The Dick Cavett Show.

One of Jymie Merritt’s most productive showcases as a composer was when he reunited with his former Jazz Messenger colleague gifted trumpeter Lee Morgan. Morgan’s 1970 Blue Note release Live at the Lighthouse featuring Merritt’s composition “Absolutions” (recorded earlier by Max Roach) has become a jazz classic.

In 1962 Jymie Merritt formed and fronted the Forerunners in Philadelphia. The band, which evolved into a music cooperative exploring Merritt’s own system of chord inversions, harmonics, and unique approaches to composition and rehearsals, produced a lexicon of its own known as the Forerunner system or concept.

Among the original members of the Forerunner band were Odean Pope, Kenny Lowe, Donald Bailey, and September Wrice. This group performed regularly in and around Philadelphia for five years, until Merritt joined Max Roach’s band. Pope would also join Roach’s band, playing with him into the 1970s. Forerunner was on and off periodically from the 1960s through the 1980s, depending on what band Merritt was playing with at the time as well as how his health was. Saxophonist Bobby Zankel was a member of the second incarnation of the band when he joined in 1982, which also included Alan Nelson, Odean Pope, Julian Pressley, Colmore Duncan, and Warren McLendon. Zankel is primarily known as an alto player, but played baritone sax with the band, and described the role of the sax section over solos as taking on an accompanying role, where they would always play under the soloist, comparing it to the typical role of the bassist but in the sax section.” Approaching his 90th birthday Merritt continues to rehearse and perform with the current incarnation of The Forerunners, many of whom have been with the ensemble from its inception.

Pioneer of the electric bass. He played a custom-built 5-string Ampeg Baby Bass personally designed by Everett Hull. Merritt recalls when he first bought a Fender bass: “Now all this time, I had been playing electric bass, from about the first year of service with the Bull Moose band. We were out in Oklahoma somewhere, when Benny Golson saw this Western band, what you call a hillbilly band, with a fellow playing what looked like a guitar and sounded like a bass. Benny got me over to hear this and we later saw one in a music store. Benny went in for some reeds or something, so I tried a Fender electric bass and that night I took it to work. The owner let me take it and I tried it out working and nobody raised any objection. I had been having trouble with my own bass, one of the assembly line types, so I was in the market for a new bass. Anyway, I got curious and bought the thing and played it for the next seven years or so. I guess at the time I was the only one in jazz playing an electric bass. Certainly, I’m pretty sure Monk Montgomery wasn’t playing one because we used to see him in Minneapolis and he was always interested to see the instrument.”

Awards and honors In November 2013, along with friend and fellow bassist Reggie Workman, Jymie Merritt received the Clef Club of Philadelphia’s Living Legend, Jazz Award.

At the 2009 Philadelphia Jazz Fair, produced by musician and professor Don Glanden, Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and the Jazz Heritage Project honored Jymie Merritt and the jazz organist Trudi Pitts with the Jazz Heritage Award. Merritt’s award was presented to him by the bassist Charles Fambrough.

In addition, Jymie Merritt was honored with the Don Redman Heritage Award in June 2008 at a ceremony and concert in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia at the annual event sponsored by the Harpers Ferry Historical Association and the Jefferson County NAACP in cooperation with the Don Redman Heritage Society of Piedmont, West Virginia.