“ I?m holding it together. Each year, the gigs are better and the quality gets better. ”
After at least 13 years away from music entirely, and another 13 years rebuilding his life - and his chops - Jon Mayer is ready to take on the challenges of his hometown. "My life has taken a few twists and turns. This is my first legitimate jazz appearance [in New York] in more years than I care to remember, the veteran bebop pianist says from his southern California home. "There are a few people who remember what I may have done back in the day, and many who don't. But because of my Rip Van Winkle phase - where I didn't play anything for 13 or 14 years - they've forgotten. The chance for New York to get reacquainted with Mayer will come on June 26th when he brings his sparkling way with a melody to the Jazz Gallery, where he will perform with bassist Paul Gill and drummer Steve Johns.
At least two of Mayer's five fine recordings since he emerged in the Los Angeles area from his dark period were recorded in New York - including this year's very fine release, Classics (Reservoir). But Mayer hasn't made a public performance in NYC for decades. "I'm going to come loaded for bear. It's sort of my coming out party and welcome home dinner - hopefully the first of many, he said. "I'm going to use this as some sort of launching program for other forays into the northeast. I feel finally ready to talk to some booking people. My work has reached a point where it speaks for itself.
Mayer, now 65, grew up in Washington Heights. After graduating from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and a brief stop at the Manhattan School of Music, he immersed himself in the thriving jazz scene of the late '50s. He played with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, clarinetist Tony Scott, drummer Pete "LaRoca Sims and tubaist Ray Draper. He recorded with Jackie McLean on Prestige's Strange Blues (1957) and one year later with John Coltrane on a session finally issued on Roulette in 1990 as part of Trane's Like Sonny. In the '60s and '70s, Mayer performed with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and vocalists Dionne Warwick, Anita O'Day, Ernestine Anderson and Sarah Vaughan, as well as The Manhattan Transfer. Then he vanished from the scene, not surfacing on recordings until the release of Round Up the Usual Suspects (Pullen Music) in 1996 with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Higgins.
So where had Mayer been since the late '70s? "I got too deeply involved with substance abuse and went down a rabbit hole - and almost didn't come out, he said. "I had been shanghaied out of the music business by one of my wives, who wanted me to help with her business. I retired from The Manhattan Transfer, became a businessman and got deeper and deeper into the wrong things. It took many rehab efforts. I escaped from New York, got on a plane to L.A., made some phone calls, and got involved in a program that got me sober.
"As time went on, I got my life together. I found a woman who became my wife and we have a very nice life together. I live in the suburbs in a beautiful house and have 26 rosebushes. When I came to, I never thought I'd get my music back. Then I began to feel like, 'Well, maybe I can play again'.
Since the early '90s, Mayer has made regular performances west of the Mississippi, mostly in California's better known jazz rooms, and in Europe over the past decade, as he rebuilt his musical confidence. But this Rip Van Winkle said he emerged to find a different jazz world. "From working in New York at least six nights a week, I woke up to a one night a week world with few exceptions. But for L.A, I'm doing okay. Between my teaching at Santa Monica College, working with other people [occasionally backing trombonist Slide Hampton, and tenor saxophonists David "Fathead Newman and Benny Golson on West Coast tours] and a fair amount of gigs, I'm holding it together. Each year, the gigs are better and the quality gets better, he said.
Mayer has a steady California trio with drummer Roy McCurdy and bassist Chris Colangelo. He also coleads an infrequent quartet with saxophonist Ernie Watts. He has a strong preference for the material by Golson, McLean and Horace Silver, with at least one of each gracing his newest CD. "They are tunes that knock me out, lay well under my fingers and grab me harmonically and melodically. I probably learned "Along Came Betty directly from Benny Golson. Ballads are where the music really lives, Mayer said. "There is a goldmine of compositions back there that have lived to see another day. They can be revisited and recycled. They will stand up for another century. I am committed to a tonal, melodic direction with a hard bop penchant.
"I'm a bopster and I cannot be denied as a bopster. In fact I just got a new vanity plate, which my wife insisted I get. It's 'BOPSTA'. It makes me feel good. I need to play this music. It keeps me tuned in to the universe. I know I am affecting people. That's the reward.
Jackie McLean - Strange Blues (Prestige-OJC, 1957)