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Jymie Merritt, legendary Philadelphia jazz bassist who played with the greats, has died at 93

Merritt was a members of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the late 1950s and early 1960s and played with John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and many more.

Philadelphia jazz bassist Jymie Merritt, who has died of cancer at 93.
Philadelphia jazz bassist Jymie Merritt, who has died of cancer at 93.Read moreCourtesy of Mike Merritt

Jymie Merritt, 93, the Philadelphia jazz bassist and composer who played with Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, and many others in a career that spanned seven decades, has died.

His son Mike, also a bass player, said his father died at his home in Center City on Friday, April 10. The cause was liver cancer.

Because Mr. Merritt was best known for accompanying famous jazzmen and anchoring legendary bands, he didn’t achieve the wide fame accorded to some of his fellow musicians. But the West Philadelphia native, whose compositions “Absolutions” and “Nommo” were recorded by Max Roach and others, was held in the highest esteem by his colleagues.

“Jymie Merritt, that’s a great loss,” said Philadelphia sax player Odean Pope, who first played with him in 1959. “I’m very grateful that I lived during his time.”

Pope is among a group of Philly musicians who, as the Forerunners, recently completed an album of Merritt’s compositions, scheduled for release later this year.

“In addition to him being an extraordinary bass player, he had his own sound," Pope said. "He had his own concept. He was just so fluent in what he was doing. To me, playing his music was like going to the highest university in the whole world.”

Mike Merritt also described his father as a musician’s musician.

“People like Miles Davis wanted him to be in his band," he said Monday from his home in Los Angeles. “Art Blakey or Max Roach or Sonny Rollins or Dizzy Gillespie, whoever he was working with — the musicians knew who he was. But to the general public he was a sideman, because he never recorded anything under his own name as a leader.”

In 2013, Mr. Merritt received Living Legend honors at the Philadelphia Clef Club Jazz Awards. A 2016 tribute at World Cafe Live cited his groundbreaking work. Philadelphia bassist and bandleader Christian McBride has featured music recorded at that event on his NPR show Jazz Night in America. McBride called him “a giant.”

“Phrases like musical genius and unsung are so casually and recklessly thrown out there describing just about anyone these days,” McBride said at that time. “Jymie Merritt is not only one of the great bassists of his era, but also one of the great composers.”

Mr. Merritt is best known for his years with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, starting with the 1959 album Moanin’, an acknowledged classic of hard bop.

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In that period, the band, led by drummer Blakey and anchored by Mr. Merritt, included three other Philadelphians: trumpeter Morgan, sax player Benny Golson, and pianist Bobby Timmons.

Mr. Merritt had established himself as a player of impressive range and expertise before he joined Blakey.

Mr. Merritt — who pronounced his first name “Jimmy” — was born in Philadelphia in 1926. His father was a businessman and minister. His mother was an elementary school teacher who also taught piano.

He served overseas in the Army in World War II, seeing combat first in North Africa and then in the Battle of Anzio in Italy.

Originally a saxophonist, he switched to bass after returning from the war, and started playing with Coltrane, Golson, and Philly Joe Jones in 1949. He was an early innovator on electric bass, which he started playing in 1951.

In the early 1950s, Mr. Merritt moved between the blues and R&B touring circuit and the jazz world in Philadelphia and New York. He toured with Bull Moose Jackson, known for his risque rhythm and blues hits, and spent three years in blues great King’s band.

After his years with Blakey, he worked with Chet Baker, Roach, and again with Morgan, the last most notably on the 1970 double album Live at the Light House, which was recorded in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and includes lengthy versions of Mr. Merritt’s compositions.

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Blue Note Records is assembling a box set of recordings from the Hermosa Beach shows with Morgan, for which Mike Merritt — a longtime bass player in Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show band — interviewed his father.

“He was very positively affected by hearing that music again after all these years. He really felt good about where that band was going, had Lee not met an early death [he was shot to death in a New York jazz club in 1972], and the ground that band was breaking.”

Mr. Merritt returned to Philadelphia in the 1970s and led that era’s Forerunners, which took its name from an organization of musicians and other performers that he had cofounded in 1962. The band, featuring longtime Philadelphia musicians like Pope and Colmore Duncan, put Mr. Merritt’s music into practice, even though health struggles often prevented him from touring. He was first diagnosed with cancer in the 1970s.

“People like Lester Young, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie left an enormous trail of ideas that we were following,” Mr. Merritt once told the Daily News, explaining his desire to push the music ahead with the Forerunners. “For me, there were a lot of threads to be pulled together from all over the place to increase the vocabulary that we used.”

In addition to his son, Mr. Merritt is survived by his longtime partner, Ave Merritt; sons Marlon and Marvon; and daughters Mharlyn and Jamie Reese. He was predeceased by son Martyn, who died in 1989.

Mike Merritt said that no funeral is planned at this time, but that the family hopes to to have a memorial service in Philadelphia in the late summer or fall.