Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: "Striving is the Back Story"


Vijay Iyer brings rare stuff to jazz piano, starting with a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics. Gujarati stick dances and Bhajan devotional songs from Northern India are in his blood, well mixed by now with the pop sounds of a boyhood in Rochester, New York: Prince and James Brown, then Miles and Monk. He brings also — to his Birdland debut this Spring, and to his new CD, Historicity — bassist Stephan Crump and the drum prodigy Marcus Gilmore, who just happens to be the grandson of the last living drum giant of the Forties, the eternally experimental Roy Haynes. But the sum of Vijay Iyer’s gifts is more exciting than any of the parts. He brings to improvisational music, most of all, the aura of an art starting fresh, just beginning — not looking back, much less winding down.

Could we talk, I inquire, about the space he seems to be building out between cultures and eras, between East and West, between the music that marked the American Century at its best and whatever it is that’s trying to happen next? So, on the morning after his opening gig at Birdland, Vijay Iyer is sitting at the piano in a rehearsal studio just off Times Square, making conversation in much the same confident probing spirit he makes music.

I identify with the culture of cities. I find cities to be inherently transnational… And that reflects my own perspective, and my own sense of hybridity and the dynamics that unfold in the music I make…

I was an improviser… I started on violin and then on piano learned to play by improvising. There was never any boundary between improvising and playing a song. It was really the same thing for me. That was how I learned to play. And really, that’s how we as humans learn to do almost everything… It’s the way we stumble around in the world.

Most of our social network as a family was in this burgeoning Indian community in Rochester, New York. That was where my Indianness existed, with family and with family friends. But in my neighborhood or in my school, Indianness was more a mark of difference, and something that had to be negotiated. There was this dual existence, which is reminiscent of Du Bois’ double-consciousness kind of thing. The Karma of Brown Folk…

I have this other heritage, and that heritage is a very important part of who I am, and it’s an important part of my music. But I’ve been here as long as anybody else my age. I was born and raised here and 100 percent immersed in American culture. To me, it was never a question of how American I was, but to others it is always a question…

The drummers are the real history of the music. The rhythm is where the music lives and grows…. I wish I was a drummer. I try to connect with the drummer and do what the drummer does. When you link with the drummer, everything sounds better. You get that resonance, that sympathetic action. That’s part of what music is: the sound of people moving together.

Here in New York…there are people playing together just for fun, or for mutual betterment…. People are in it because they love it, and that love is constantly expressed in wonder at new music and at new possibilities and new discoveries and new talent, new players on the scene who have something new to offer.
Architecture is a fair metaphor. The analogy holds up. Architecture is about creating spaces. You’re creating spaces for people to move around in. That’s what we’re doing. And you want people to be free, but you also want to offer them things, to offer them possibilities. You want to frame their activities in a way that helps infuse it with meaning.

My particular American experience is one of improvisation and navigation through a certain set of challenges and opportunities… For me, as a person of color in America, I’ve looked to histories of other communities of color in America as an orienting guideline. And that’s part of what led me to really stay with this music: the history of the African American pioneers who dreamed the impossible and made this music happen… That striving is the back-story for this music. When you talk about improvised music, it’s as William Parker says: “In order to survive, the music was invented.” Not to match my struggles with theirs—I had a very different path, and my parents had a very different circumstance—but they also came here with very little, and had to build something.

Vijay Iyer in conversation with Chris Lydon in New York City, June 17, 2010.

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  • Thenu

    I Saw Vijay’s Interview at the one of the Tamil Tv Serial Website.. I think they probably still have it they were talking about his music and how he came to the place where he is today..

  • A few years ago, a friend of mine and I went out to the Queens Museum of Art one weekend for an India-America Cultural festival when I happened to be in the City.

    Now I knew this would be a lot more hip than the immigrant kind of thing I went to growing up as a kid — you know — the amateur music and dance by little kids in front of gushing parents that made you wince. No, this was at a MUSEUM in NEW YORK — and looking at the program listings of theater, multimedia art, and music one knew that it was going to be very contemporary.

    Nevertheless, when we walked in on the concert by Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa… being the aging boomer exiled on the cultural island of Cape Cod (the mid-Cape, not P-town) …. I had no clue about Iyer. I really didn’t know a thing about him.

    So I was stunned to discover the authority, inventiveness and lyricism. And if my hero William Carlos Williams spoke of the American idiom, it was thrilling to discover that my subcontinental roots could fold into it with such elegance. I thought I discovering an unknown master. I found out later that he had been voted Rising Jazz Star of the Year in Downbeat two years running.

    And of course, after hearing him play, I walked out in a trance. I felt healed knowing that a deep tradition was being upheld and reinvented at the same time..

    The next time I was in the City I caught the operatic piece he did in Brooklyn and once again was transported to a place I had forgotten existed. As a teenager I used to long for the kind of global culture of music and literature that has now emerged, though I didn’t have the wit or courage to create it at that time- After the show, Iyer was in the foyer and I went up to him and stammered something about how profound his work was, forgetting for that instant as I paid my homage that he is as old as a son of mine might be if my life had been only a little bit different. He just looked at me, perhaps a bit taken aback by the intensity of this greying guy, and said “thanks”.

    So this long interview is a real treat, a wonderful stew of American cultural history, jazz music, Indian diaspora, globalism, improvisational elan, riffs on issues of colour, and much more.

    Keep ’em coming, Chris!

  • Sounds like it will be a while before the United States becomes a truly post-racial society.

    Iyer can define himself as American and he can even one-up other US citizens in Americanness, but he’s still

    Something by which I was taken aback, at IU Bloomington ten years ago, is the fact that those who were considered to be “of color” (as if colour were the factor!) were expected to mostly talk about their “race” whereas those who were considered “white” were expected to remain silent when notions of race and ethnicity came up for discussion. Granted, ethnicity and race were frequently discussed, so it was possible to hear the voices of those “of color” on a semi-regular basis. Still, part of my culture shock while living in the MidWest was the conspicuous silence of students with brilliant ideas who happened to be considered African-American. Something similar happened with gender, on occasion in that women were strongly encouraged to speak out…when a gender angle was needed. Thankfully, some of these women (at least, among those whose “racial” identity was perceived as neutral) did speak up. But there was still an expectation that when they did, their perspective was intimately gendered.

    Of course, some gender lines were blurred: the gender ratio among faculty members was relatively balanced (probably more women than men), the chair of the department was a woman, and one department secretary was a woman. But women’s behaviours were frequently interpreted in a gender-specific way, while men were often treated as almost genderless.

    Those of us who were “international students” had the possibility to decide when our identities were germane to the discussion. At least, I was able to push my «différence» when I so pleased, often by becoming the token Francophone in discussions about French scholars. At the same time, my behaviour may have been deemed brash since, as an instructor later told me, “it’s just that, since you’re Canadian, we didn’t expect you to be different.” This was in reference to a seminar with twenty students which included seven “internationals”: one Zimbabwean, one Swiss-German, two Koreans, one Japanese, one Kenyan, and one Québécois with Swiss origins. In this same graduate seminar, the instructor expected everyone to know of Johnny Appleseed and of John Denver.

    Again, a culture shock. Especially coming from a context in which the ethnic identity of the majority is frequently discussed and in which cultural identity is often “achieved” instead of being ascribed.

    Going back to Iyer… It’s remarkable that his thoughtful comments about Jazz ended up being associated more with his background than with his overall approach. It all reminds me of a discussion with fellow Canadian ethnomusicologist and Jazz musician Tanya Kalmanovitch. She had fantastic insight to share on identity politics through the international (yet not post-national) Jazz scene. In fact, she’d make a great Open Source guest. She lives in Brooklyn but works as assistant chair of contemporary improv at NEC, in Boston.

    In some ways, Jazz is more racialized and ethnicized now than it was when Howie Becker published Outsiders. It’s also very national, gendered, compartmentalized… In a word: modern. Of course, it can play a role in postmodernity. But only if it sheds itself of its modernist trappings. We should hear out Kevin Mahogany’s (swung) comments about a popular misconception:

    Some cats work from nine to five

    Change their life for line of jive

    Never had foresight to see

    Where the changes had to be

    Thought that they had heard the word

    Thought it all died after Bird

    But we’re still swingin’

    The following anecdote seems à propos. Branford Marsalis quartet on stage outside at the Indianapolis Jazz Fest. Some dude in the audience starts heckling the band: “Play something we know!” Marsalis, not losing his cool, engaged the heckler in a conversation on Jazz history, pushing the envelope, playing the way you want to play. Though the audience sounded divided when Marsalis advised the heckler to go hear Chaka Khan on the next stage over, if that’s more his thing, there wasn’t a major shift in the crowd and, hopefully, most people understood how respectful Marsalis’s comments really were. What was especially precious is when Marsalis asked the heckler: “We’re cool, man?”

    It’s nothing personal.

  • Potter

    Took me awhile to get here. This is a very generous interview. More than that, it’s genuinely interesting especially considering that talk about music, especially Jazz, is difficult to listen to. When it’s bad it’s like sports talk. But this conversation had a lot of great insight. “Indianess” (“Tamilness”) adds to Vijay’s Americaness and gratefully to ours. The piano excerpts were wonderful. Vijay’s piano is simply wonderful.

    Thank you.