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Violinist, composer, Indo-Jazz fusion pioneerby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
John Mayer, who collaborated with Joe Harriott in developing a fusion of jazz with Indian musical elements, died on March 9, 2004, after being struck by an automobile. He was 73 years old.
Born into extreme poverty in the Chandni Chawk section of Calcutta, Mayer played the violin for food as a child. His Roman Catholic family disapproved of him playing for Protestant churches and theater audiences, but Mayer did whatever he could to escape his destitution. In school he studied both Western and Eastern musical forms, knowing that a good, thorough base of knowledge would serve him best as a traveling musician.
After studying with Melhi Mehta in Bombay and playing drums in a jazz band to learn more about the style, Mayer was granted a scholarship to Britain's Royal Academy of Music in 1952. His Academy studies included comparative religion and music courses, which furthered his interest in musically fusing the hemispheres. "Raga Music for Solo Clarinet" was one of his earliest compositions to unite Indian and Western elements.
From 1953 to '58 Mayer played violin in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, during which time Yehudi Menuhin graciously performed his "Violin Sonata". His status as a composer didn't sit well with certain LPO players, so in 1958 he transferred to the Royal Philharmonic, where his presence as the sole non-Caucasian bemused the other performers. Small matter, as Mayer's career kept flourishing. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic commissioned the suite "Dances of India" which united the Indian sitar, tanpura and tabla with flute and symphony.
A new door opened in 1964, when Mayer was approached by producer Dennis Preston for a new commission. Preston was working on a project for Atlantic Records and sought a piece for brass, winds and percussion. Mayer came up with "Nine for Bacon", which so impressed Preston that he recommended Mayer for a collaboration with altoist Joe Harriott. The two men put together a double quintet, half jazzmen (including future Mahavishnu Orchestra bassist Rick Laird) and half traditional Indian musicians, and dubbed the group Indo-Jazz Fusions.
The group's music was outlandishly exotic, especially given Harriott's interest in free jazz explorations at the same time. Mayer's scores left plenty of room for improvisation in both jazz and Indian methods. Music journalists were nonplussed, acknowledging the impressive sound as best they could with a limited Western vocabulary. The group recorded three albums: Indo-Jazz Suite (1966), Indo-Jazz Fusions I (1967) and Indo-Jazz Fusions II (1968, all on Atlantic). After three years, however, the jazz sector of the group gave up trying to master the complex specifics of raga and tala techniques and the band folded.
Mayer continued to work as a composer and violinist, with frequent moments of good exposure. In 1967 His "Shanta Quartet" for Sitar and Strings" was recorded by the Lansdowne String Quartet with a guest sitarist. Internationally renowned flautist James Galway recorded Mayer's flute concerto, "Mandala ki Raga Sandeet", in 1990 (The Concerto Collection), and a full album of Mayer's compositions in 1982 (Galway Plays Mayer, both on RCA). He also got into progressive rock, mentoring Keith Emerson and helping to orchestrate the keyboardist's "Piano Concerto". In 1972 Mayer was a member of the Indo-prog band Cosmic Eye (Dream Sequence, Regal Zonophone).
In 1996 Mayer convened a new edition of Indo-Jazz Fusions, using musicians who were better equipped to handle the intricate Indian forms than the prior lineup (Asian Airs, 1997; Regatal, 1999, both on Nimbus). He was composer-in-residence at the Birmingham Conservatoire from 1996, and established the school's bachelor's degree program in Indian music in 1997. His pieces "Prabhanda" and "Calcutta Nagar" were recorded by the ensemble Fali Pavri on Britten, Rubbra and Mayer (1995, Guild).
John Mayer is survived by his second wife, Gillian; their sons, Jahan and Jonathan; and his daughters from his first marriage, Lesli and Toni.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.