Jymie Merritt: Dedication Personified
AAJ: You emerged onto the world jazz scene with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
JM: I feel that my hooking up with Blakey was in a sense divine providence.
AAJ: How did you actually meet Art Blakey?
JM: I think it was the 4th of July, 1958. I was sitting around in Philly with nothing to do, and decided to go to New York and see what the guys were doing there. I started walking up Seventh Avenue and saw Small's Paradise, which had a sign in the window: "The Jazz Messengers." I went in and sat at the bar while they were playing, and after the set, Art comes over to me and totally out of the blue says, "Would you like to work for me?" And I said, "Yeah!" And that was it! I still don't understand that to this day. Maybe someone in the band said something to him, but he just walked right up and asked me. I told him I was playing Fender bass guitar with a rock band, but that didn't seem to phase him. But I played upright bass with the Jazz Messengers, although a couple of times I let him hear me on the Fender.
AAJ: Many of the greats in jazz got their big break with Blakey. They are all very devoted to him in retrospect. He mentored the young guys in his groups, brought them up, brought them along. What's your recollection of Blakey? What was it about him that was so inspirational?
JM: Well, I was a little older than most of the guys in our group. I was in my late 20s or early 30s, but the first thing you realized about him was that he was extremely focused. He had a true sense of jazz, a real "messenger," so to speak. He recollected the time when he was involved in the Muslim movement, and then after a while he wondered what his personal "message" was, and he tried to put that into the music. It's similar to the earlier leaders I'd go and hear in Philadelphia who would infuse so much into the bands. He had a spiritual side, and it was uncanny how he would identify just what needed to be done, and it just happened.
Blakey was from Pittsburgh, and there was a serious jazz scene there as there was in Philly. I went to Pittsburgh to play with him, and then returned there many times to play with both him and Max Roach. There was something great about the jazz scene there at that time, and some of the best players came from that area, like Ray Brown and Mary Lou Williams.
AAJ: Speaking of Max Roach, I have always imagined that playing for him would be very difficult on account of the complexity of his musical ideas. Is that a correct assessment?
JM: Yes, it was very challenging, but it was very engaging. There was a lot to learn from him, and the way he brought it to your attention was always by indirection, never direct instructions. I learned a lot from him, and he invited me back at a later time, but I had contracted cancer, so I was unable to return to the group.
AAJ: You're a cancer survivor. About how long did you struggle with it?
JM: For about 20 years.
AAJ: That's a long haul. But I presume you were performing during a good deal of that time?
JM: Yes, I was. Actually, I wasn't sure what it was for a long time.
AAJ: What enabled you to recover?
JM: For one thing, my third wifewe've been together almost 30 yearshad such faith in me that I was inspired to persevere. I had never abused drugs like some of the other musicians, and that was a plus. I went on special diets like macrobiotics, and that enabled me to improve my level of functioning until I met a doctor who did a CT-scan, which was less common at that time, and they located the tumor. So from then on, in the mid-1980s, I was able to get treatments. Now I'm doing great, and I feel like a 20-year-old. I want to get out there with the young musicians. I'm listening to a high school band over in Camden, N.J.
AAJ: I wanted to ask you what you think of some of the up-and-coming players.
JM: Some of them are coming up so youngin their teens! And they are really dedicated and serious. In fact, the guys in their 20s are the older generation now! They're pursuing their careers. One guy went and got a doctorate, and that's happening more often.
AAJ: Yes, and you can see how these guys are able to bring in all the traditionsthey know the whole jazz legacy and are able to incorporate it in their playing. In fact, your son, Michael is a bassist, and what about your daughter, Mharlyn?
JM: She's my oldest, and a singer. She's back in Philadelphia now and starting a group of her own, which she once had here back awhile.
AAJ: When they were growing up, did you try to interest them in music?
JM: No, I didn't. I tried not to influence them in any way. And I was astounded that all my kids pursued music, and a couple of them became professionals.
AAJ: How many children do you have?
JM: I have six children, five by my first marriage and one by a later marriage. I have no children by my third marriage, only a cat [Laughter].
AAJ: A different kind of "cat." Now, I've heard of this group project you do called the "Forerunners." They apparently were doing a lot of good things, but I don't know if they're still going. Could you tell us about them?
JM: Well, when I stopped going on the road, I wanted to bring some of the energy of the Jazz Messengers into Philly. So I started a workshop at the Tuskegee Clubhouse, and I got Kenny Lowe, the late, gifted pianist, the drummer Donald Bailey (we called him Duck), singer September Wrice and the saxophonist Odean Pope. And we kept it going for five years until I went with Max Roach.
AAJ: So the "Forerunners" was an ongoing workshop.
JM: Yes, and then we got to play on Sundays at Father Paul Washington's church, and I used that opportunity to go beyond the kind of bass playing I'd been exposed to, in order to develop new forms and build from that.
AAJ: What kind of ensembles do you write for?
JM: I write for registers and voicing, rather than particular instruments. In the past, I wrote for bands as large as 18 pieces, but now I'm writing just for the five people in my current group. We're trying to develop a different attitude that is yet deeply involved in the traditional music.
AAJ: Have you been influenced by Ornette Coleman?
JM: No, not especially. I did come through that period, and we did quite a bit in that area. There were always players that were on the edge. What Ornette did was to bring attention to the validity of experimentation, because a lot of the innovators were shunned.
AAJ: Am I correct that you are coming out with a recording of your compositions?
JM: I have my own record company and a small studio where I live, and I'm hoping to record a lot of the musicians in the Philadelphia area using my own music for those who want to play it. I hope to distribute my music widely, especially for the younger people to perform it.
AAJ: Will there be any live opportunities to hear your compositions?
JM: Well, we're going to do a couple of them at the Jazz Fair on July 12th at the University of the Arts.