As the Brian Morris Quartet launched into a robustly swinging rendition of Hank Mobley’s “Roll Call” at Chris’ Jazz Cafe on Tuesday night, Mike Boone, as he so often does, played the role of elder statesman to the young band. The 62-year-old bass great has mentored countless young musicians in his more than 30 years on the Philly jazz scene, from such successful names as guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and pianist Orrin Evans to the current crop of up-and-comers, including saxophonist and Temple student Morris.
On the opposite end of the age spectrum was the band’s drummer, a full half-century younger than his rhythm section partner. Boone has taken such precocious players under his wing in the past, but this one is special: 12-year-old Mekhi Boone is not only a promising drummer, he’s bassist’s youngest son.
“It’s mind-blowing, in a way, and it’s a blessing,” the elder Boone said before the show. “It’s kind of surreal, but it’s also a heavy responsibility. I’m just trying to keep him humble. He’s talented, but you can always get better. I’m one of the older guys now, but I’m still trying to learn and get better myself.”
Despite his tender age, Mekhi already has a couple of years under his belt on stages around the city and has had the opportunity to play alongside such veterans as bassist Buster Williams and pianist Uri Caine, who played trio with the Boones at the Kensington listening room @exuberance in June 2017.
“Mekhi is a prodigy,” Caine said, “and even though he’s young, he swings hard and is so creative and mature. I‘m sure we’ll be hearing a lot of great music from him in the future.”
On Wednesday night in Roxborough, Mike Boone will pay tribute to one of his own mentors, the late pianist Sid Simmons, as part of Jazz Bridge’s Neighborhood Concerts series. For years, Simmons anchored the jam sessions at Ortlieb’s as generations of aspiring jazz musicians learned on the bandstand. Boone was among them, as were Caine and trumpeter John Swana, who will join Boone for Wednesday’s performance.
“I learned a lot about being an individual from Sid,” Boone said. “You heard two chords and you’d know it was Sid playing. All the musicians in Philly were individuals like that. They all share that Philadelphia sound, that swing, but everybody went for their own thing. And you don’t have to be born here; you just have to spend some time here and it rubs off on you.”
Boone speaks from experience. A native of New York City, he landed in Philadelphia in 1986 after a lengthy stint on the road with legendary drummer Buddy Rich. Coming from the bustling musical environment in N.Y.C., he at first felt like an exile in the city. “When I first got here, I thought God was punishing me for something I had done in a past life,” he laughed. “I probably had an elitist attitude, but Philadelphia humbled me. The city became my finishing school in terms of learning the nuances of the music and what it was about culturally.
Buddy Rich was my undergrad, and Ortlieb’s was my grad school.”
Over the ensuing decades, Boone has passed that educational torch on to countless younger players. He’s been a member of the Temple faculty for 13 years, but perhaps more important, he’s guided novice players on the stage, first at Ortlieb’s and now through the late-night jam sessions at Chris’ and his own Thursday night sessions at Heritage.
“Every second playing with Mike is a learning experience,” said Morris. “You can hear so many memories through his playing. He’ll never tell you anything that you didn’t ask, but if you ask, he’ll tell you his honest opinion. It’s a privilege to play with somebody of this caliber.”
Mekhi, inevitably, has a more mixed opinion of working with his father. “It’s cool and it’s annoying,” he said while warming up at the kit on Tuesday. “It’s cool because he’s my dad and he’s the one who started me in the music. And it’s annoying since, because he’s my dad, on the way after a gig home he’s always going to tell me what I did wrong.”
Though he takes a special pride in his son’s estimable talents, Boone obviously takes his responsibility to every young player on the scene equally seriously. “Working with younger guys keeps me relevant while I can share what I know as an older guy, which is a good exchange for me,” he said. “I definitely owe a lot to this community, which has embraced Mekhi and poured a lot into him. He’s learned from everybody he’s listened to, and I think he’s a composite of the best of what Philadelphia has to offer. I’d like to think there’s many more where he came from just waiting to be heard.”