Q&A with Saxophonist Ranzel Merritt, Jr.
By Shelah Moody
Saxophonist Ranzel Merritt, Jr. epitomizes the word “prodigy.” Watching him perform Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” on YouTube, you can see that this 18-year-old is already an accomplished musician, giving artists such as Branford Marsalis and Kenny Garrett a run for their money. Merritt comes by his talent honest; his father, Ranzel Merritt, Sr., is a renowned jazz drummer who has played and toured with Pharaoh Saunders, the David Murray, Last Poets and Ed Kelly among others.
The Ranzel Merritt, Jr., recently graduated from the Oakland School for the Arts. During this year’s AfroSolo performance, Merritt will lead his own band of talented young musicians, including Omree Gal-Oz (piano) Chris Jefferies (standing bass) and Malachi Whitson (drums). This summer, Merritt performed at an outdoor concert for peace as part of the 2011 AfroSolo Arts Festival.
Q: Where did your amazing talent come from? Did you demonstrate a natural ability to play before you studied music in school?
A: First of all, my dad is the one who inspired me to start music. Since I was a baby, I was going to his gigs and I grew up around the cats. He inspired me to pick up an instrument and start making music, but he never forced it on me, which was a good thing. I fell in love with music. I started in the fourth grade at Peralta Elementary School in Oakland. I started off on drums, but they didn’t really work for me, so I started playing the saxophone in the elementary school band. From there, in the sixth grade, I got into the Young Musicians Program at U.C. Berkeley. That’s when I started really getting serious about my music and taking everything to another level, because I saw kids my same age who were playing really well and kicking my butt.
Q: My father was also a jazz musicians, and I know that we musician’s kids, grow up under unique set of circumstances.
A: It is definitely different than what everybody else goes through. As a musician’s kid, you learn things a lot faster. You mature a lot faster, too, because you are around the club scene a lot. You experience things that most people experience when they are adults. It’s a wonderful experience. I’m glad I have two parents in the house.
Q: Describe your past experience working with AfroSolo.
A: When I first worked with AfroSolo, I was young; I was in the ninth grade, I was young, and I had only been playing the tenor saxophone for two years. I was still getting used to the instruments. I had my brother on drums and my dad’s friend on bass. I really don’t remember who I had on piano, but it was a good gig. I enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun, the crowd was great and they had a lot of great bands that day. It was really cool, it was a wonderful experience just being on the show and having the opportunity to work with Thomas and AfroSolo. It was a big deal.
Q: What players do you listen to nowadays?
A: In terms of jazz, Kenny Garrett has definitely influenced me. I had the opportunity to play with Kenny at Yoshi’s nightclub when I was in the tenth grade. That was a great opportunity. Also James Carter, Joshua Redman-- all of the cats who came up in the 1980s and 1990s have influenced me. Definitely, the older cats like Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. I’m definitely loving Branford Marsalis right now.
Q: As a young person, how do you feel that music can promote peace and unity?
A: Music can promote a lot of things nowadays, to tell the truth. So many people are into music such as hip hop, rap. There are so many ways that artists such as Jay-Z and Beyonce put out their music and influence a lot of people. The Last Poets are a really good example of artists who promote peace and power. Also, Common and Lupe Fiasco. They promote some good things. People like John Coltrane promoted positive energy and good vibes, not negative stuff. As long as you are putting out positive thoughts and energy, people are definitely going to love you and pass it on.
Q: What are your current goals in terms of music?
A: First, I want to finish college. I also want to continue with my own band, doing my own pieces. I want to get my master’s degree either in New York or in L.A. at the Thelonius Monk Institute. I want to travel around the world. I want to get signed. I want to play other types of music. I started out playing gospel music in church. I’ve played everything, I’ve played rock, show tunes; I’ve done R&B gigs. If I can express myself like I do with jazz, I will definitely play it.