Music is the best way to travel

During the pandemic travel restrictions have, understandably, been a source of much frustration. But, puzzlingly, the music industry has done little to promote transcultural music as a viable substitute for travel. In fact, in art music monoculturalism has been replaced with monopluralism. A worrying development that finds expression in the mistaken belief that a spoonful of Mirga and Sheku helps systemic prejudice go down. Thankfully there are exceptions to this myopia, although you have to dig deep below the preoccupations of our classical commentators to find them. 

One of those notable exceptions is the new CD of Violin and Sitar Concertos from the father and son team of Jonathan and John Mayer. Born in Calcutta to an Anglo-Indian father and a Tamil mother in 1929, John Jiddhu Mayer was precociously talented and studied music from an early age. From seven he studied at the Calcutta School of Music and in 1952 came to London to study violin and composition at the Royal Academy. His compositions were programmed by Sir Adrian Boult, Bernard Haitink and others, and he played violin in the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1953 to 1958, so becoming the first musician of colour to play regularly with a major London orchestra. The truly multifaceted John Mayer, who was also noted for his Indian influenced jazz recordings, died in 2004*. His son Jonathan was born in 1975. He studied composition at Birmingham Conservatoire and sitar in the the Senia veen-kar Gharana under the late Pandit Subroto Roy Chowdhury, and has also effortlessly crossed the meaningless border between jazz and classical. 

John Mayer's Violin Concerto No. 2 and Jonathan's Sitar Concerto No. 2 were recorded by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Calcutta born and Czech Republic domiciled Debashish Chaudhuri. The Violin Concerto was commissioned by Erich Gruenberg in 1977 with funds provided by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust, and the Sitar Concerto was premiered in 2019 with Debashish Chaudhuri conducting the Karlov Vary Symphony Orchestra. Sasha Rozhdestvensky is the soloist in the Violin Concerto, and the Sitar Concerto soloist is its composer.  Coupled with these works on the beautifully presented CD** from Jonathan Mayer's First Hand Records label are John Mayer's Concerto for the Instruments of an Orchestra, a 1975 London Philharmonic commission premiered with Bernard Haitink conducting, and Jonathan Mayers' Pranam for sitar and orchestra, which was inspired by the Indian dance-form Kathak.  

Much that I admire the genius of Ravi Shankar, I have never been totally convinced by his compositions for Western forces, which too often veer towards cliché in the orchestral writing. (The notable exception to this is his unfinished opera Sukanya.) The compositions of the two Mayers most definitely do not fall into this trap; which is understandable as both have had the rigorous schooling in the Western tradition which Pandit Shankar lacked. The Mayer's concertos do not sound like fashionable 'fusion', nor do they sound like the soundtrack for a Netflix Raj period drama. Both father and son have written music which totally justifies the label 'new'. Mayer senior studied composition with the Hungarian exile Mátyás Seiber who encouraged him to explore serial composition in both Indian and Western classical contexts, and this influence is evident in the compositions of both generations of Mayers: music video samples via this link

The Mayers have composed unashamedly challenging music which swims against a tide that is sweeping the classical genre towards the doldrums of 'comfort music'. In 2008 Jonathan Mayer collaborated with me in an appreciation of his father, and this is republished below to help fill in the backstory to the Mayer family's exemplary journey in classical multiculturalism. 

Sir Adrian Boult's explorations of less familiar music is obscured by his reputation as the definitive interpreter of mainstream English masterworks. Among these explorations was his 1934 concert performance of Alban Berg's Wozzeck, a performance that predated the first British staged performance by eighteen years. Another tantalising glimpse of this precociousness is given in Peter Lavezzoli's book The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: this tells how "[John] Mayer composed his Jaya Javanti symphony for the London Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult (unfortunately not recorded)". Tantalising, because researching the performance of this symphony, including consulting Michael Kennedy's definitive biography of the conductor and Sir Adrian's own memoir, drew a blank. However biographical information on the Anglo-Indian composer, trans-cultural jazzer and violinist John Mayer who played in the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1950s, is on the record***. There are also examples of his music; including this previously unavailable recording of his remarkable Second Violin Concerto played by Erich Gruenberg:

John Jiddhu Mayer - seen in photos above - was born in Calcutta to an Anglo-Indian father and a Tamil mother in 1929. He was precociously talented and, despite his parent's poverty, studied music from an early age. From seven he studied at the Calcutta School of Music and went on to study with the French violinist and conductor Phillipe Sandré in Calcutta and the founder of the Bombay Symphony, Melhi Mehta, father of Zubin. During this period John Mayer's ambitions as a transcultural composer started to emerge and he also studied Indian classical music with Sanatan Mukherjee, who wrote the influential treatise Theory of harmonization of Indian melody. Mayer's primary interest were the Indian and Western classical traditions, but he also tasted jazz by sitting in with bands.

Having been awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy, John Mayer arrived in London in August 1952. His scholarship was for the violin, but he also studied composition with the Hungarian exile Mátyás Seiber whose influences included Schoenberg, Bartók and jazz. Seiber was an advocate of twelve tone composition, and he encouraged Mayer to explore serial composition in both Indian and Western classical contexts. Mayer's money ran out after only a year in London; fortunately his talents as a violinist earned him a place in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which allowed him to remain financially afloat while continuing to study composition. Mayer played with the London Philharmonic for five years, and is reported to have rather anomalously described himself as “the first black face in a symphony orchestra”. In the photo below John Mayer is with a young Bernard Haitink.

Sir Adrian Boult was chief conductor of the London Philharmonic during this period, after being forcibly retired from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1950. He was sympathetic to the composing ambitions of his violinist and programmed several of Mayer's works. However tensions arose with the London Philharmonic's management due to Mayer's parallel career trajectories of violinist and composer. These tensions were exacerbated by his increasing recognition as a composer, notably a commission from Sir Charles Groves for a Dance Suite for sitar, flute, tabla, tampura and orchestra to be premiered by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 1958. This precipitated Mayer's departure from the London Philharmonic; so from 1958 to 1965 he was a member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra where, somewhat surprisingly, he had a productive relationship with the despotic Thomas Beecham.

By 1965 Mayer's income from composing allowed him to leave the Royal Philharmonic. His decision to depend solely on his composing income was influenced by unexpected success in the jazz world. Mayer had won a reputation in avant-garde London circles for his eclectic composing style, and in 1964 independent producer Dennis Preston needed a jazz piece to complete an album he was producing for EMI. Preston asked him if he had anything suitable; Mayer needed the work and replied that he had, although this was a bluff. The producer then said he wanted to record the piece next day, and Mayer worked all night to write it. Mayer attended the successful session, was paid a £20 fee, and then forgot about the commission.

But six months later Dennis Preston told him that he had played the piece to Atlantic Records co-founder and president Ahmet Ertegun in New York. Ertegun, who shaped the careers of John Coltrane, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and others, had proposed that Mayer compose music for a ground-breaking - this was 1964 - fusion album combining Indian music and jazz. The proposal was for an Indian quintet of sitar, tabla, tambura, flute, with Mayer on violin and harpsichord, to be combined a jazz quintet led by Jamaican-born alto-player and early world music advocate Joe Harriott. Mayer wrote the music in a month, and it was recorded by the ensemble envisaged by Ahmet Ertegun, now known as the Joe Harriott and John Mayer Double Quintet, in two days.

Indo-Jazz Fusions, was released in 1966 and became an unexpected best-seller and developed a cult following in avant-garde circles. This led to a performing career for Mayer with the ensemble which was now known as Indo-Jazz Fusions. The line-up included bassist Rick Laird who went on to play in John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. A second album followed and Indo-Jazz Fusions played together until Joe Harriott’s death in 1973. Mayer's Western classical training left him uncomfortable with the pure improvisation native both to jazz and Indian music, and his carefully scored charts kept the music within the confines of his raga-based themes. CD transfers with more than acceptable sound of both Indo-Jazz Suite and Indo-Jazz Fusions II can still be found.

John Mayer's remarkable career trajectory from a Calcutta slum, via the Royal Academy and the London Philharmonic, to avant-garde jazz then took another remarkable turn when he became a prominent figure in progressive rock circles. He mentored Keith Emerson during work on the The Nice’s third album, and is credited with playing a role in the creation of some of their repertory, notably Diary of an Empty Day. He later co-orchestrated and conducted his almer mater the London Philharmonic on the 1977 recording of Keith Emerson’s Piano Concerto no. 1 for the album Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Works Volume 1 album; this was the biggest selling album on which Mayer appeared. First Hand Records, of which Mayer's son Jonathan is a co-proprietor, has remastered and released John Mayer's suite Dhammapada - the sacred scriptures of Theravada Buddhism - played by London Music Fusions and recorded in 1976; as an introduction to John Mayers classical work this disc is highly recommended.

Following Joe Harriott’s death Mayer devoted much of his time to composition and academic work, and was appointed professorships and composer-in-residence at the Birmingham Conservatory where he introduced the BMus Indian music course in 1997. Among the gems in a classical idiom awaiting rediscovery are two Violin Concertos - one including sitar tabla & tanpura, Dances of India for orchestra, Sangitara for String Orchestra & Tanpura, and Ragamala for clarinet & orchestra.

John Mayer revived Indo-Jazz Fusions in 1995 with his son Jonathan playing sitar, and recorded with them for the Nimbus label. In a fascinating example of taking coals to Newcastle, the reformed Indo-Jazz Fusions toured India in 1996, Bangladesh in 1997 and Sri Lanka in 1999. In addition to his jazz work Mayer continued composing in his unique hybrid Indian-Jazz fusion style. In March of 2004 John Mayer was hit by a car and fatally injured while crossing the road in North London. He was 74.

Although John Mayer's iconoclastic career is documented, the fate, or even existence, of his 'Jaya Javanti symphony' remained a mystery up to this point. But I refuse to let these overgrown paths simply fade away. So my researches finally took me to Johnathan Mayer. To my delight he confirmed that 'Jaya Javanti', which was an early composition of his father, does exist, and was performed by both the London Philharmonic and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestras. Peter Lavezzoli's description of it as a symphony is misleading, as is his transliteration of the title: the work is more a variations for orchestra on the Hindustani raga Jayajavanti (commonly called Jaijaiwanti). There are versions for chamber and full orchestra, and the score is in the British Museum. Moreover there are two non-commercial recording of Jayajavanti among John Mayer's effects.

This recording is one of the items to be included in an online archive being created as part of a National Lottery funded project celebrating the life and legacy of John Mayer. The community project is based in Hillingdon, West London run in conjunction with the Pandit Ram Sahai Sangit Vidyalaya performing arts charitable trust and will feature a programme of events and learning activities led by Jonathan Mayer showcasing the work of his father. Jonathan has very generously given me permission to use one of the recordings of Jayajavanti - the version for full orchestra - in this article. The provenance of orchestra and conductor is unconfirmed, but it is thought to be the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, possibly conducted by Sir Charles Groves.

So the mystery of the lost symphony from the 1950s is solved. More than half-a-century later the ethnic barriers still existing within classical music are coming under close scrutiny. Let us hope that this retelling of John Mayer's remarkable story belatedly brings him some of the recognition this ground-breaking musician so richly deserves.
*  Particularly noteworthy is the admirably virtue signalling-free cover artwork for the Mayer Concertos disc. It is the work of the multi-talented David Murphy who is co-founder of First Hand Records. 
** Attention should be drawn to another important example of classical pluralism that has slipped under the highly fallible radar of our cultural commentators. MRI Press recently published John O. Robinson's From the Slums of Calcutta to the Concert Halls of London: The Life and Music of Indian Composer John Mayer (1929-2004).
** The usually unerring Peter Lavezzoli wrongly states that John Mayer played with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra from 1958 to 1965. This is wrong: as above he played with the London-based Royal Philharmonic during this period .

My grateful thanks go to Jonathan Mayer who made this appreciation of his father possible. No review samples used in this post. Copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address at the top of the page.


Antoine Leboyer said…
Amazing story. I am listening to the concerto as I write this. Thanks for pointing out this music to us.

Pliable said…
Very kind tweet from Jonathan Mayer. But I'm not sure about the dubious honour of being awarded a hashtag -
Jay said…
Your blog is a veritable treasure chest of information, history and lesser-known composers and repertoire. I confess that, despite having worked in many classical CD stores during the 90's, I haven't heard of many of the composers or recordings you discuss. Thank you so much for all your hard work and passion - you really have inspired me (and I'm sure, many others too). Now, off to do some travelling via your Soundcloud... :)

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