Born on October 28, 1930, in Calcutta, India; died on March 9, 2004, in England. Addresses: Record company--Nimbus Records, Waystone Estate Limited, Waystone Leys, Monmouth, Monmouthshire United Kingdom, NP25 3SR, website:

Throughout his 50-year career, John Mayer never stopped growing as a musician and composer. "John Mayer was one of those multiple-threat music talents that made most other players' lives and career paths seem simple," wrote Bruce Eder in All Music Guide. Whereas many musicians were content to work within the confines of a particular genre, Mayer drew from both Eastern and Western tonal scales, and from classical and jazz, to create a distinct blend of music that defied categorization. He began his career as a violinist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1950s, but delved into fusion jazz and world music during the 1960s and 1970s. "Very few musicians make a significant impact on even one sphere of music," wrote Yehudi Menuhin in the London Times, "but to leave a lasting impression on three vastly different areas---classical, jazz and world music---is an exceptional achievement."

Mayer was born into a poor family in Chandni Chawk, Calcutta, India, in 1930. His Anglo-German-Indian father was a dockworker and his mother, an Indian, had come from Madras. "Starvation was never far away," wrote the London Telegraph, "and young John frequently waited for food parcels at local churches." Mayer found his deliverance, however, when he began violin lessons at the age of seven. Although he often practiced by himself due to his family's lack of money, he eventually studied classical music in Bombay with Melhi Mehta, and took violin lessons at the Calcutta School of Music with Phillipe Sandre.

When he was 22, Mayer won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. Although his skills as a violinist had won him the scholarship, he started out studying composition under Matyas Sether, and eagerly began exploring the connections between Eastern and Western music. His money ran out after a year, but he was hired by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to play in its violin section, and he remained there for the next eight years, simultaneously studying at the Royal Academy. Mayer also composed while working with the London Philharmonic, and several of his works were performed.

Mayer's first real break came when Sir Charles Groves commissioned him to write Dance Suite. The piece combined orchestral arrangements with tabla, flute, sitar, and tambura, and was performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958. But Mayer's success created tensions with his current employer. "This early success ... created problems with the management of the London Philharmonic," wrote Eder, "which was a conservative organization and didn't appreciate having a composer within the ranks of its performing musicians."

After being forced to leave the London Philharmonic, Mayer accepted a position with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham. For the next seven years he worked with the Royal Philharmonic, learning to conduct and becoming familiar with the inner workings of a large ensemble. By the mid-1960s Mayer was making enough money with his compositions to leave the Royal Philharmonic, and he quickly gained a reputation in avant-garde circles for his works combining Eastern and Western classical music styles.

In 1964 producer Denis Preston was finishing an album for Atlantic Records, and asked Mayer if he had written any short pieces that would be suitable for a jazz album. Mayer said he had, and Preston asked him to bring his music to a recording session the following day. In truth, Mayer had not written anything of the sort, but he stayed awake all night to write "Nine for Bacon." Once the piece had been recorded, it came to the attention of Ahmet Ertegun, the president of Atlantic Records. He liked Mayer's work and suggested he record an album for the Atlantic label. Mayer joined with saxophonist Joe Harriet, who formed the Indo-Jazz Fusions with pianist Pat Smythe, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, flutist Chris Taylor, sitar player Diwan Mothar, tamboura player Chandrahas Paiganka, and tabla player Keshan Sathe. "It was certainly the first ensemble to successfully introduce jazz, classical and Indian music to each other," wrote Alyn Shipton on the Indo Jazz website, "and it was the first band to use the term 'fusion' in its name."

The duo of Mayer and Harriott had a month to prepare new material for their first album, and two days in which to record it. Indo-Jazz Fusions was quickly followed by Indo-Jazz Suite. Consisting of four ragas and using an Indian tonal scale, Indo-Jazz Suite resembled free jazz by eschewing the linear progression dominant in Western musical scales. The presence of a Western quintet, however, along with elements of the blues and swing, also seeped into the music's framework. Thom Jurek of All Music Guide wrote of Indo-Jazz Suite, "This work, written and directed by Mayer, offered the closest ever collaboration and uniting of musics East and West." Together Mayer and Harriet recorded three highly praised albums between 1966 and 1968, and toured Europe and Britain.

After tensions developed between Mayer and Harriott in 1970, the latter dropped out of Indo-Jazz Fusions. He was replaced by Tony Coe, and the band recorded a fourth album in the early 1970s. Following Harriott's death from cancer in 1973, however, Mayer chose to retire the band. "I felt very disheartened when Joe died," he later told Shipton, "and I just didn't want to carry on with the band." For a short time Mayer worked with progressive rock musicians, including Keith Emerson, and he played violin on Cosmic Eye's Dream Sequence. Soon, however, Mayer turned to quieter pursuits. For the next 20 years he concentrated on writing new compositions and on his academic work at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

In 1995 Mayer decided to revive Indo-Jazz Fusions. "Soon after we re-formed," he told Shipton, "we visited Bangladesh. Audiences were bowled over, and I knew then that this was different. This was a group full of new blood, playing the music a very different way." Many of Mayer's former students joined the group, and over the next several years Indo-Jazz Fusions would record three albums for the Nimbus label and tour India. "Indo-Jazz Fusions is just such a proof of the folly of labels," noted Shipton. "It isn't a question of the music being jazz, or Indian, or classical; it is a thoroughly satisfying blend of ingredients into something genuinely new, original and forward looking." Mayer died after being hit by a jeep while returning from an optical appointment on March 9, 2004.

by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr

John Mayer's Career

Joined London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1950s; commissioned by Sir Charles Groves to write Dance Suite; joined Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, late 1950s; wrote "Nine for Bacon" for Denis Preston, 1964; recorded with Joe Harriott as Indo-Jazz Fusions, 1966-70; established at Birmingham Conservatoire as composer in residence; re-formed Indo-Jazz Fusions, 1995.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 14 years ago

Wow!!!! I never knew about John Mayer, where I am from Calcutta and am a Violinist too. It was amazing reading his biography, thanks to the internet. I was searching some other thing but got into this context and couldn't remove my eyes from the text once I began. John Mayer is an inspiration for me now, He was a great man and musician. I shall share this with my friends.