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Merritt making 'premiere move' out of Philly

June 26, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Legendary jazz bassist Jymie Merritt's performance at the Don Redman Heritage Awards & Concert in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., will be his first show away from Philadelphia in more than a decade.

"I decided I would make this my premiere move," said Merritt, 82, of Philadelphia.

Merritt will join Jimmy Cobb at Saturday's concert on the lawn behind the Stephen T. Mather Training Center (formerly the campus of Storer College) in Harpers Ferry. Merritt said it's been years since he's played with Cobb, who was Miles Davis' drummer during the 1950s and into the '60s. He said he hasn't performed outside the Philadelphia region in nearly 12 years.

Merritt's 60-year professional career is punctuated by stints with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. He's getting back on his feet after overcoming a bout with cancer, which forced him to quit touring.

Merritt plans to release his first record by the end of the year. Though he can be heard on hundreds of jazz recordings, and has some unreleased recordings with his Philadelphia-based collective of local jazz musicians, the Forerunners, Merritt has no publicly available recordings of his own.

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Merritt grew up in a musical Philadelphia family. His mother was a classical pianist who was childhood friends with singer Marian Anderson.

Merritt started off playing the sax until he enlisted in the Army at age 17. By the time he came back home, at age 21, he had a breathing condition. His mother introduced him to the double bass as something to do until he could get back to the sax.

"I've been playing bass ever since," Merritt said.

Despite his classical training, Merritt longed to play jazz. He burned all his classical music books -- which he later repurchased -- because he thought they had an inhibiting influence on him. Merritt had the advantage of an encouraging mentor and experience playing at social functions, where the pop music of the day was not classical.

He eventually built his reputation as a jazz bassist until one day the impossible happened.

"I went into this particular club in Harlem called Small's Paradise to see this act," Merritt said. "After the show, Art Blakey came from the bandstand and asked me to play with them. I didn't even know he knew me."

They immediately started recording and then went touring in Europe, hitting all the major jazz spots of the time -- Munich, Paris and Amsterdam.

He continually played, collaborating with many big names along the way, but he found himself having to cut his tours short because of his ill health. Most recently, a cancer diagnosis forced him to stop touring.

His love for music rubbed off on his son, Mike Merritt, a recording artist and one of the musicians on NBC's "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

"He didn't seem like he wanted to play," Merritt said. "I asked him what he wanted to be and he said president of the United States. I said, while you're waiting on that, here's this (a bass guitar) and some books to read."

For the past 12 years, Merritt has been performing twice a week at the Prime Rib, a steakhouse in Philadelphia. He said the Don Redman concert would be a launching point to something new.

As a kid, he grew up listening to Redman, though he never got the chance to meet him as a professional jazz musician. He said Redman was one of the reasons he named his Philadelphia group the Forerunners.

"He was one of the forerunners," Merritt said. "I'm quite honored to be coming to a place where he started his ventures."

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