A long-overdue tribute concert celebrating lifelong Philadelphia jazz artist Jymie Merritt, the innovative double bass and electric bassist, band leader, and composer, will be recorded for an upcoming edition of NPR’s Jazz Night in America program. The Music of Jymie Merritt and The Forerunners will take place Saturday, January 16, 2016, 7:30 p.m. at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Admission to the concert is free via RSVP.
The Music of Jymie Merritt and The Forerunners is being coordinated and supported by local non-profit music organizations WXPN-FM, WRTI-FM and the Philadelphia Jazz Project, and made possible by a grant from the Wyncote Foundation. Audio (as well as a video companion) from this concert will appear on Jazz Night In America in April. Jazz Night in America can be heard on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia on Sundays at 8 p.m.
The January 16 concert will feature The Forerunners, the progressive ensemble first formed by Jymie Merritt in 1962, performing original compositions he wrote between 1964 and 2009. Now led by his son, bassist Mike Merritt, the other longtime members of The Forerunners who’ll be playing are Warren McLendon, piano and percussion; Colmare Duncan, piano; Alan Nelson, drums; Terry Lawson, tenor saxophone; and original member Odean Pope, tenor saxophone.
About Jymie Merritt
Merritt is considered a pioneering figure in jazz for being one of the first to adopt the electric upright bass and the Fender electric bass. As a sideman, he is respected for his exploratory yet supportive style. Although Merritt’s legacy is often closely linked to his time with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, “his own music is more in tune with the ‘modernists’ than the traditionalists that many assume he’d be in league with,” said Homer Jackson, Director of the Philadelphia Jazz Project. Merritt’s five children all became musicians, most notably his son, renowned bassist Mike Merritt, who’s been a member of late-night TV host Conan O’Brien’s band since 1993.
Born James Raleigh Merritt in 1926 in Philadelphia, Merritt served in WWII from 1944-46 before being inspired by Duke Ellington bassist Jimmy Blanton. Merritt studied with Carl Torello, double bassist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and at the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia. In the ‘50s, Merritt started touring with rock and rollers Bull Moose Jackson and Chris Powell, and with bluesman BB King.
He moved to New York City in 1957 to play with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (through 1962), and along with Benny Golson, Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons, helped established the impactful Blakey/Messenger brand and a musical legacy. Of the 25 recordings Merritt played on as a sideman, 17 were with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Merritt then played with trumpeter-vocalist Chet Baker before joining drummer-composer Max Roach from 1965-68 as a player and composer, for which Merritt earned a “Best Jazz Composer” nomination for his “Nommo” in Downbeat magazine’s Critics Poll. His career also included working with jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie, and in 1970, he reunited with trumpeter Lee Morgan of the Jazz Messengers to record the Live at the Lighthouse album (Blue Note), featuring Merritt’s composition “Absolutions,” previously recorded by Max Roach.
The Forerunners & Mike Merritt
With The Forerunners, active in Philadelphia’s cultural community from 1962 into the late ’80s, Jymie Merritt contributed to the expansion of the jazz vocabulary by developing new approaches to composition and form, and new systems of chord inversions and harmonics. The group also shaped the musical education of Mike Merritt, who, like his father, has toured and/or recorded with blues and R&B artists such as Johnny Copeland, Son Seals, Johnny Johnson, Ruth Brown, Al Kooper, and Hubert Sumlin. Mike’s deep body of work also includes Levon Helm, Phoebe Snow, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Osborne and many more, in addition to his weekday late night TV show performances. Mike has devoted a page on his website to his father’s impressive biography.
In 2009 Jymie Merritt was honored along with jazz organist Trudi Pitts with Philadelphia’s University of the Arts Jazz Heritage Award. In 2013, he was honored along with friend and fellow bassist Reggie Workman with the Clef Club of Philadelphia’s Living Legend Award. Approaching his 90th birthday, Merritt, who resides with his wife in Center City Philadelphia, has had to limit his playing and touring over the years due to recurring illness. When possible, he continues to rehearse and perform with The Forerunners, which recently recorded a new album at Philly Sound Studios for release in 2016.
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Jazz Night in America
Now in its second season, Jazz Night in America is a partnership between WBGO, Jazz at Lincoln Center and NPR Music. The hour-long public radio program is hosted by jazz bassist Christian McBride, a four-time GRAMMY-winner and Philadelphia native. New episodes of Jazz Night In America are released on Thursdays. Every week, a one-hour program is sent to public radio stations throughout the U.S. and archived online. Every other week, a concert documentary video companion to that week's radio program, with other videos, is released online. Check local listings to hear the radio program, and visit npr.org/jazznight to watch episodes and other videos from the program.