Jazz Concepts: "Whisper Not" - The Song that Plays Itself

September 1, 2017

Jymie Merritt earned his place in The Pantheon of Jazz Greats through his work with Benny Golson, Art Blakey, and B.B. King in the ’50s and ’60s. The classic albums Moanin’ [Art Blakey, 1958, Blue Note], Drums Unlimited [Max Roach, 1965, Atlantic], and Live at the Lighthouse [Lee Morgan, 1969, Blue Note] feature Merritt’s solid, hard-bop bass lines. Merritt was a pioneer of the electric bass; he picked up the Fender in the ’50s and worked throughout his career as a doubling master.

In his book Hard Bop Academy: The Sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers [2002, Hal Leonard], Alan Goldsher writes, “The most perceptibly funky Messenger since Horace Silver, Merritt—more so than any Blakey bassist before or since—immediately made a major impact on the band. Throughout the in-concert smoker Paris 1958, his unyielding support creates a lush backdrop for the band’s primary soloists, regardless of the tune’s tempo or volume.” Indeed, Merritt’s ability to hang with the powerhouse Blakey on drums, while outlining the intricate harmonies of complex Benny Golson compositions, made him the quintessential hard-bop bassist.

This month, let’s look at one of Merritt’s bass lines on the jam-session anthem “Whisper Not,” which has a 32-bar, AABA form. Example 1 shows Merritt’s line from a live concert with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in Europe [see Connect]. Merritt worked with Blakey from 1957–62, recording many of the Jazz Messengers’ best albums. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ European tour is documented on the album Art Blakey, 1958 Paris Olympia [BMG/Bluebird].

In recent columns, we’ve explored the circle of 4ths and circle of 5ths. “Whisper Not” is an example of a harmonic progression that uses three key centers in the A sections (first eight bars), moving clockwise through the circle of 5ths: C minor, G minor, and D minor. The three key centers in the A sections are joined together with IIm–V7 progressions (Ex. 1). Starting on Cm7, the bass line descends to a IIm–V7 (Am7b5 to D7) into the Gm7. The progression continues with a IIm–V7 (Em7b5 to A7) into the Dm7.

Ted Gioia describes the appeal of “Whisper Not” in his book The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire [2012, Oxford University Press], writing, “The song’s ease of conception is reflected in its unlabored flow. The phrases succeed each other with a rigorous logic that, if not for the occasional blue note, would be more characteristic of a classical prelude than a hard bop chart.” “Whisper Not” belongs to the collection of songs that “play themselves.” If you conscientiously outline the arpeggios and hook up the IIm–V7 sequences, you’ll improvise a beautiful, Bach-like, bop-like, flowing line.

Example 2 shows the B section of “Whisper Not,” which features rhythmic hits in the first two bars from the piano, drums, and bass. The bass walks in the bridge’s last six bars, before returning to a two feel for the final A section of the melody chorus. The rhythmic hits belong to the common-practice arrangement of the melody chorus, and most jazz players will instinctively play the rhythms, even at a jam session. A jazz bassist must know the history of the standard repertoire in order to play the appropriate, universally accepted bass parts. Plus, you don’t want the drummer at a jam session to throw a cymbal at you when you mess up his Art Blakey moment!

Instead of showing a bass line in a two feel for the last eight bars of the 32-bar form, Example 3 is a solo line over the changes to the A section. Remember that the chord progression is based on three key centers (C minor, G minor, and D minor), connected by IIm–V7 patterns.

Through his work with saxophonist Benny Golson, Art Blakey, and others, Jymie Merritt epitomized hard-bop bass playing, and was instrumental in defining the bass line on “Whisper Not.” Some bassists of the ’50s–’60s hard-bop era have higher profiles (Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Charles Mingus), but Jymie Merritt will always be remembered for his time as a Jazz Messenger, his classic recordings with the great soloists of jazz, and his pioneering work on the Fender bass. His legacy walks forward through the music of his son Mike Merritt, who has played bass on Conan O’Brian’s TV shows for 24 years.

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JOHN GOLDSBY

John loves to play “Whisper Not,” the song that plays itself. Check out John’s new video lesson series, The Upright Bass Handbook, at truefire.com and johngoldsby.com.

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5 Swinging Versions Of “Whisper Not”

To learn this often-recorded standard inside and out, listen to these versions of “Whisper Not,” masterfully played by the greatest names in jazz.

1. Dizzy Gillespie, Birk’s Works, Paul West on bass [1957, Verve]
2. Lee Morgan Sextet, Paul Chambers on bass [1957, Blue Note]
3. Benny Golson, New York Scene, Paul Chambers on bass [1959, Contemporary]
4. Shelly Manne and His Men at the Black Hawk, Monty Budwig on bass [1960, Contemporary]
5. Keith Jarrett, Whisper Not (Live in Paris, 1999), Gary Peacock on bass [2000, ECM]

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