Jazz of great Merritt
| Various articles | 2006-09-04
| Philadelphia Daily News (PA)|
August 17, 2006
Philly natives' jazz of great Merritt
Children of legendary Jymie Merritt, Mharlyn & Mike are stars in own right
AL HUNTER JR. email@example.com, 215-854-5855
Mharlyn Merritt grew up in a house filled with disparate voices - June Christy, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Little Jimmy Scott, Johnny Cash, Elvis.
"To us, it was all music," Merritt said. "There was no difference."
B.B. King was a frequent visitor. And once when Duke Ellington stopped by, a young Merritt boldly asked "What's your real name? Duke is a dog's name."
The Merritt house on Vodges Street in West Philadelphia was rich with music for good reason. Father Jymie was a renowned jazz bassist who worked with King, Art Blakey and Max Roach. Mother Dorothy was an "amateur expert" on jazz singers who exposed the five children to numerous vocalists.
Now Mharlyn, a singer, and her brother Mike, a bassist and member of the "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" band, have joined forces to create "Alone Together" (EMerrittus Recordings). They perform tonight at Chris' Jazz Cafe.
Ten years in the making - blame conflicting schedules for the long incubation - the eight-song CD includes jazz incarnations of pop tunes by Al Green ("Look at What You've Done for Me") and Sting ("Consider Me Gone"). There are also jazz standards such as Jobim's "Insensatez (How Insensitive)," which Mharlyn sings in Portuguese, and which has a funky samba bent.
Mharlyn's voice slides through the style realms of Betty Carter, Billie Holiday and, to a degree, Nancy Wilson - strong, emotive, not all prim and pristine. Mike does what in-demand session bassists do best: lay out sturdy lines without getting in the way.
Being Jymie Merritt's children brought Mike and Mharlyn some notoriety. Around age 5, Mike realized his Pop had a different kind of job than his friends' fathers did.
"I would be at school and people would say, 'Your father plays with Art Blakey,' " Mike recalled. "But the importance of it didn't hit me at that age because I didn't have the awareness of the music."
That changed around age 15 when Mike saw his father in New York, working with Max Roach. "I remember going to the club, hanging out with him, watching him play," Mike recalled. "And he would introduce me to the musicians. I'm watching the band, the music, and I'm starting to get it."
He was drawn to the electric bass around that time. "Something about it spoke to me," Mike said. He learned upright later.
The challenge for him was obvious: He was Jymie Merritt's son. But Mike realized he could be his own man in the early 1980s at a New York City jam session.
The tune called was "Yesterdays." Being young, Mike thought it was "Yesterday" by the Beatles. The band wanted the Jerome Kern standard.
"My first reference was the Beatles, so my head was somewhere else," Mike said. "It made me realize maybe I didn't have to follow in my father''s footsteps." He opened himself to other types of music, such as blues and rock, and developed strong sideman credentials.
A former social worker, Mharlyn is a producer/media assistant at the Paul F. Harron Studios at Drexel University's DUTV. She also hosts the "World Beat" show on DUTV.
She sang background at Sigma Sound Studios for Fat Larry's Band and Luther Ingram, among others. With the band Messenger, she has opened for Eddie Palmieri and Hugh Masakela. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in jazz performance and an Interdisciplinary Arts Fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
Singing songs by the Meters and Betty Wright, she has channeled Christy Love - big afro and all - at Peace Love & Soul shows at the Tritone.
She remembers visiting her grandmother, Agnes Merritt, who taught school and piano, one day. Her grandmother put on a record.
"She said, 'Here, listen to this,' " Mharlyn said. It was John Coltrane's "Equinox."
"A whole new world opened up," Mharlyn said.
And she pursued an interest in the arts until around 1989, when her brother Martyn, who played classical piano, died of AIDS, she said. Looking to work out her grief, she became a social worker for 10 years.
The CD is the realization of a dream for Mharlyn.
"We didn't go into this thinking we were going to make a million," Mharlyn said. She wanted to document some work with her brother Mike. Her father still lives and plays in Philadelphia.
"One of the saving graces of jazz is it has longevity," Mike said. "If you're consistent, you can make a mark, carve out an area for yourself. You may not get large numbers, but you'll get a quality in your audience." *
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