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date: 25 June 2022

Merritt, Jymie [James Raleigh]free

Merritt, Jymie [James Raleigh]free

  • John Curry
  • , revised by Barry Kernfeld

Updated in this version

updated and revised

(b Philadelphia, May 3, 1924; d Philadelphia, April 10, 2020). American double bass player. His nickname is pronounced “Jimmy.” For his year of birth Merritt gave 1926, which appears in all published sources, but his signed June 1942 draft registration card gives 1924 (at age 18). He was classically trained and initially received lessons from his mother, who played piano and directed a church choir. Merritt took up tenor sax as a teenager. He enlisted in the army 1943. During three years of service he developed sinus problems and abandoned the saxophone. After working in construction for nearly a year, he took up double bass, which he studied at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music [later absorbed into the University of the Arts], at the Ornstein School of Music, and privately with the Philadelphia Orchestra double bass player Carl Torello. His first jazz work was with John Coltrane, Benny Golson, and Philly Joe Jones in Philadelphia (1948–9). After playing electric bass guitar on tours with Bullmoose Jackson (1951–3) and B. B. King (1955–7) he returned to jazz and the acoustic instrument when he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (1958). This association lasted until 1962 and consolidated Merritt’s reputation as one of the foremost double bass players of the hard-bop movement. During and after his tenure with Blakey he recorded with Sonny Clark and Benny Golson (both 1958), Curtis Fuller (1961), Wayne Shorter (1962), Sonny Rollins (1963), and Chet Baker (1964), then toured and recorded playing a five-string electric double bass with Max Roach (1965–8), Dizzy Gillespie (1969), and Lee Morgan (1970–72).

In the early 1960s Merritt and others formed the Forerunners, a loosely knit group of musicians and practitioners in other disciplines; this later became Forerunner, an evolving cooperative organization that performed intermittently in and around Philadelphia under Merritt’s directorship. Having suspended activities in the 1980s on account of his ill-health, Forerunner reassembled following his recovery to perform on New Year’s Eve 1998, and continued for the remainder of his life. In addition Merritt performed regularly with the pianist Kenny Gates at the Rib Room of the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia from 1997 into the new century.

Merritt’s propulsive, on top of the beat rhythmic style and frequent use of triplet figures and grace notes was particularly appropriate to Blakey’s drumming, while his work with Roach and Morgan on the five-string electric instrument foreshadowed much of jazz-rock fusion bass playing of the 1970s. He was also an accomplished composer: his pieces Nommo, Absolutions, and Angela were recorded by Roach and Morgan, and an extended work, The Spiritual Impulse, was performed by Forerunner.

Selected recordings

As sideman with A. Blakey

Moanin’ (1958, BN 4003)

The Big Beat (1960, BN 84029)

A Night in Tunisia (1960, BN 84049)

The Witch Doctor (1961, BN 84258)

Three Blind Mice (1962, UA 14002)

As sideman with others

B. Golson: The Other Side of Benny Golson (1958, Riv. 290)

S. Clark: Black Velvet/Gee baby, ain’t I good to you? (1958, BN 1731), The Breeze and I/I can’t give you anything but love (1958, BN 1729)

C. Baker: The Most Important Jazz Album of 1964–65 (1964, Colpix 476)

M. Roach: Drums Unlimited (1965–6, Atl. 1467), incl. Nommo, Members, Don’t Git Weary (1968, Atl. 1510), incl. Absolutions

L. Morgan: Live at the Lighthouse (1970, BN 89906), incl. Absolutions, Capra Black (1971, BN 849091), incl. Angela

Bibliography

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Jazz Journal International
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L. Feather: The Encyclopedia of Jazz (New York, 1955, rev. and enlarged 2/1960/R1984)
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L. Feather: The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties (New York, 1966/R1986)