Jymie Merritt, Bassist Who Brought a Rooted Yet Exploratory Spirit to Post-Bop, Dies at 93

Apr 11, 2020

Jymie Merritt, a bassist who anchored some of the leading groups of jazz’s postwar era, like Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, before establishing his own sphere of influence as a composer and theorist in Philadelphia, died on Friday. He was 93.

His son Mike Merritt, also an accomplished bassist, said the cause was liver cancer.

Merritt will always be best recognized for his four-year tenure in the Jazz Messengers, which was inaugurated with the 1958 album Moanin’, a hard-bop cornerstone. Along with Blakey’s intensely locomotive drumming, Merritt formed the only constant in the band from the late ‘50s into the early ‘60s, through multiple changes in lineup and direction.

Jymie Merritt at Van Gelder Studio in Hackensack, N.J., during the 1958 recording date for 'Moanin'.'
Credit Francis Wolff / Blue Note Records

He can be heard on the live albums At the Jazz Corner of the World (1959) and A Night in Tunisia (1960), as well as studio efforts like Mosaic (1962) and Buhaina’s Delight (1963).

Almost all of these albums (a mere sampling of his work with Blakey) were made for Blue Note Records, which will release a previously unreleased album by the band on Aug. 7, featuring Blakey and Merritt alongside pianist Bobby Timmons, saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Lee Morgan.

Merritt’s deep kinship with Morgan yielded another notable chapter in his career. He was a member of the trumpeter’s final bands, in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. This group, which marked Morgan’s return to the spotlight after a difficult period, made a double album called Live at the Lighthouse in 1970. Recorded at the Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach, Calif., the original LP opens with a characteristically intrepid Merritt composition, “Absolutions.”

Merritt had originally composed “Absolutions” for drummer Max Roach — another important association in the 1960s. After he left the Jazz Messengers, Merritt worked first for a time with Chet Baker, appearing on that trumpeter’s wryly titled The Most Important Jazz Album Of 1964-65. He also worked in that decade with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, joining the bebop paragon on tour.

But his work with Roach stands out because of his contributions as a composer. In addition to “Absolutions,” which appears on the 1968 album Members, Don’t Git Weary, Roach recorded a Merritt tune called “Nommo,” for his 1966 release Drums Unlimited. “Nommo,” whose title is derived from a West African term meaning “the power of the spoken word,” stands as a Merritt trademark, combining elements of hard bop and advanced modal jazz, in a grooving 7/4 meter.

James Raleigh Merritt was born on May 3, 1926 in Philadelphia. His father, Raleigh, had moved to the city a few years earlier, after graduating from the Tuskegee Institute, where he’d befriended George Washington Carver. In Philadelphia he worked in real estate and helped establish the Vine Memorial Baptist Church.

Jymie’s mother, Agnes, played and taught piano, in addition to teaching elementary school. So he grew up in a musical household, starting out on tenor saxophone and only switching to the bass in his early 20s, after his Army service overseas during World War II.

Though it wasn’t as visible to the public, Merritt led a productive career before his time with Blakey. He started out in rhythm and blues, backing Bull Moose Jackson from 1949-53, and later touring with B.B. King. It was during this period that Merritt became a prominent early adopter of the electric bass; he brought his first Fender electric not long after it went into production in the fall of 1951. 

Similarly, Merritt did extensive work as a bandleader and mentor in Philadelphia, both before and after he had left the national spotlight. His group The Forerunners first took shape in the early 1960s, with members including pianist Colmare Duncan and vocalist September Wrice; they recorded a single called “Sweetest Sound Bossa Nova.”

Later iterations of the band, also known as Forerunner, would include saxophonists Odean Pope, Julian Pressley, Bobby Zankel and Terry Lawson; percussionist Warren McLendon; drummer Alan Nelson; and Mike Merritt, best known for his longtime post in the house bands for late-night host Conan O’Brien.

In addition to Mike, Merritt is survived by his partner of 40 years, Ave Merritt; two older sons, Marlon and Marvon; and two daughters, Mharlyn and Jamie Reese. Another son, Martyn, died in 1989.

In 2016, Jazz Night in America devoted an hourlong episode to Jymie Merritt and Forerunner, featuring a concert at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia.

“Rhythm is very complex, because it’s the basis on which the entire universe is constructed,” Merritt remarks in the program, which also features insights from his son, and several of his devoted band mates. “All life has a pattern, and once you can tap into that pattern, you tap into all aspects of life.”