John Mayer born 1930 in Calcutta, was attracted to music at an early age. At seven he was able to study violin with Phillipe Sandre at the Calcutta School of Music, who agreed to teach him in his free time as Mayer's parents an Anglo-Indian father and Indian mother, did not have the wherewithal to send him there as a fee paying pupil. later he studied with Melhi Metha who encouraged him to compete for a scholarship to the Royal Academy in London. Mayer was determined to be a composer who would be taken seriously both in his own country and abroad.
Realising that the best way to make an impact be by utilising both European and Indian techniques he started studying with Sanathan Mukherjee who the theoretical aspects of Indian classical music. At the time his contacts and interest in jazz were slight. There were no top flight musicians around and although he sat in as a drummer with jazz bands he was really only providing the basic beat.
Mayer won the scholarship, and arrived in London in 1950. Although he had won through this through his violin playing he settled down to study composition at the academy, and with Matyas Sether, who encouraged him to use the techniques of Indian and western music in serial composition. After about a year his funds ran out. He was able to get a post as a violinist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but in his words " once you jump on a tiger's back, its very hard to jump off ". Despite having some of his works played (and conducted by Sir Adrian Boult for example), he was still known as a violinist first and a composer second. finally Sir Charles Groves gave him a break he needed, by commissioning him to write ' Dance Suite ' for sitar, flute, tabla, tambura and symphony orchestra. This was premiered by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958. But the LPO didn't really like having a composer in their midst and Mayer was asked to leave. The Royal Philharmonic asked him to join and mayer stayed stayed with them until 1965. This seem to have been a happier time, and Mayer was able to learn much about orchestration from some of the finest players in Britain. He was thankful though to able to finally earn his living from his compositions and to quit full time orchestral playing.
In 1964 the EMI producer Dennis Preston asked Mayer if he had a short piece in a jazz idiom to coplete an album Preston was working on. Although Mayer hadn't, he assured him he had. Preston said "good", because they'd like to record it the next day. Mayer stayed up all night writing the piece, attended the recording, and thought no more about it. Six months later Preston told him he'd played the piece to Atlantic Record's Ahmet Ertegun, in New York, who'd really liked it and suggested that Mayer write music for an album which would blend Indian music and jazz. At the time Mayer used to try out ideas on a quintet of sitar, tabla, tambura, flute, with himself on violin and harpsichord. Ertegun's idea was to put this alongside a jazz quintet featuring the alto-sax of Joe Harriott. Mayer had about a month to write the music; the first LP was recorded in two days at Lansdowns studios and released in the USA and UK in 1966. It was an immediate success and from then until Joe harriott's death the band was gigging all over Europe.
After a few false starts the band was reformed in 1995.
John is also currently Composer-in-Residence and Professor of Composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire.
extract of article by Robin Broadbank ©1996.
photograph © Birmingham University