The honor came as "a startling bit of news" to the well-respected but under-sung Merritt, 87. "I'm excited," said the bassist, reached at home this week. That humility is typical for a musician never particularly interested in grabbing the spotlight, even as his playing grabs attention. With a bold, inquisitive voice keen to explore without showing off, Merritt has a gift for supporting the music while steering it in unexpected directions.
Like many jazz musicians in 1940s Philadelphia, Merritt played in both jazz and R&B, working with Bull Moose Jackson and B.B. King while collaborating with then-local jazz stars like Coltrane, Jimmy Smith, Benny Golson, and Philly Joe Jones. From 1958 to 1962 he was a member of Blakey's Jazz Messengers. When he left, he recommended fellow honoree Workman as his replacement.
Merritt returned to Philadelphia permanently in the early 1970s, never again to tour extensively outside the city. A major part of that decision was a decades-long battle with cancer, ultimately victorious but at times debilitating.
In the 1960s, Merritt founded Forerunners, a local performance collective he made his primary focus after resettling in the city. The group was as much a cultural and social organization as a musical endeavor, in part an outgrowth of Local 274, the predominantly African American musicians' union that headquartered at the Clef Club and folded in 1971.
In 2008, Merritt ended his 10-year run at the Prime Rib, the longest-running engagement of his career. It might seem an ignominious fate for such a gifted virtuoso, but he recalls that gig as a chance to make good music.
One of Merritt's fondest memories is an early opportunity to play with saxophonist Lester Young, a veteran of the Count Basie Orchestra. "He was a gracious gentleman," Merritt recalls. "One night he stumbled a bit on the bandstand and afterwards he said to me, 'Never look back.' That made an impression on me."
Saturday's honors might cause Merritt to look back briefly, but he continues to look forward. After being sidelined recently by illness and an operation, he's hoping to rehearse and record with a new project early next year.
Clef Club Jazz Awards: 6 p.m. Saturday, with 8 p.m. VIP reception. Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, 736-38 Broad St. Tickets: $35-$45, VIP donation $100. Information: 215-893-9912, www.clefclubofjazz.org .