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By Mike Seeley
Jon Mayer remembers his first "uptown" jazz experience. His parents, both music fans, dragged him off to 52nd Street and then home to New York's raging bebop scene, where in the Bandbox, a short-lived club around the corner from the fabled Birdland, pianist Art Tatum was alternating sets with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. During a break at Birdland, saxophonist Charlie Parker dropped into the Bandbox to jam with Ellington. Mayer, absorbing everything, was 13.
Born in Harlem in 1938 and raised on 176th Street in upper Manhattan, Mayer spent his formative years in a jazz environment that was seemingly custom-built for an aspiring pianist. His parents took him to see jazz and Dixieland in different parts of the city. Before he was 18, he borrowed the draft card belonging to a buddy of his older brother so he could sneak into Birdland with a date. He heard many of the great pianists of that era—Wynton Kelly, Sonny Clark, Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans—while still in high school.
He studied piano, mostly classical, during the day at New York's High School of Music and Art and then studied jazz at night in Harlem jam sessions held at such places as Count Basie's and the mysteriously titled Shalimar by Randolph. Occasionally he was paired with a skinny tenor saxophonist from New Jersey named Wayne Shorter.
"I would rove up and down Seventh Avenue between 123rd and 125th Street," Mayer recalls, "looking for Monday-night jam sessions. Around 1955 or '56, I got to be the first or second guy up on the bandstand. Once I got accepted, I got to play with everybody. Shorter was so sensational that people were talking."
Mayer also participated in what he calls "kid-band contests"—battles between high school jazz bands that were held Sunday afternoons at Birdland and the Pad in Greenwich Village. Tuba player Ray Draper heard the 17-year-old Mayer at one of these events and tapped him to fill the piano chair in his band.
Draper, who died in 1982, may not be well-known by today's jazz audiences, but some of his band members are. Mayer's first recording with Draper for the Prestige label included an up-and-coming saxophonist named Jackie McLean. The disc, recorded in 1957, has been reissued under the saxophonist's name as Strange Blues.
"Jackie was very charismatic, and to this day my favorite alto player," says Mayer. "He was a guy who loved life and lived it to its fullest, believe me. It was very exciting to hang with him."
In 1958, Mayer again recorded for Draper, this time with another upstart saxophonist named John Coltrane in the band (Roulette has reissued this recording under Coltrane's name as Like Sonny). Before he was 20, Mayer had recorded with two of the biggest names in jazz.
While Mayer was exposed to the rewards of a jazz life early on, he was also exposed to its rigors. "We got to party a lot and do a lot of drugs when I was first hanging out," he says. "It was all just part of the experience, as natural as having a piece of cherry pie for dessert. I didn't even ask any questions. I just wanted to be a part of everything."
He didn't get into heroin until a 1959 trip to Paris, where his trio played the Au Chat Qui Peche club opposite pianist Bud Powell. "Originally, I didn't want anything to do with it. I had a natural revulsion to the needle thing. It took a different kind of situation to accept the notion of participating."
That situation involved a woman. In a set of circumstances that recalls saxophonist Art Pepper's initiation into heroin, as divulged in Pepper's autobiography Straight Life, Mayer was introduced to what would become his drug of choice in a Parisian bedroom.
"[Within a year] things were going full throttle," he says. "Heroin . . . was the most compatible with my temperament. I never knew about moderation. I was very intense about everything I did, and I did everything to excess."
Bertrand Tavernier's 1986 movie Round Midnight, which chronicled the Paris life of a musician modeled on Powell (played by saxophonist Dexter Gordon), gives a good idea of Mayer's experiences. "I felt it was exactly the story that I lived in Paris," he says. "Working opposite Bud, you couldn't really communicate with him; you could only follow him around. All the settings, all the relationships—the character's wife, Buttercup, the seedy little hotels—were all familiar to me."
Rescue came around 1963 when Mayer was chosen for a pilot program testing the heroin substitute methadone. "They knew it was working for people in hospitals and institutions, but they wanted to see if it would work for those of us on the street. I was the perfect candidate: not cross-addicted. A middle-class cat. I didn't go around bashing old ladies over the head to get cash for a fix. I was a gentleman junkie."
Mayer says he did well on methadone during the '60s, spending three years as Dionne Warwick's pianist and a year as Sarah Vaughan's accompanist. He also subbed for pianist Roland Hanna in the revered Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and gigged with Parker's bassist Curly Russell, as well as trombonist Kai Winding and flutist Herbie Mann.