Q&A: Vijay Iyer on jazz, privileged prodigies, and "Indian-American"

Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer is a Yale mathematics graduate who also holds a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in Technology and the Arts. This might seem slightly incongruous until you read the title of his 1998 dissertation, according to Wikipedia: Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics. There's a real cerebral element to Iyer, who speaks carefully and at length but not without laughter, that anchors much of the free-form associated with jazz's improvisational nature. Iyer also attributes much of this to a 25-year-long obsession with dramatic, oblique melodies of Thelonious Monk. Last year, Historicity by the Vijay Iyer Trio was nominated for a Grammy; it included a cover of M.I.A.'s "Galang." Iyer has also worked with a slew of rappers as a composer and writer, including a recent collaboration with post-postcolonial weirdo rappers Das Racist. A first generation curio of sorts, the unique position Iyer's found himself in has meant courting a mix of ambivalence, naive curiosity, and ferocious pride, from a varied audience from labels to critics, long-time jazz fans to inquisitive South Asians. Of course this means Ethnic Aisle had to real talk with him about what the hell it's like to be a brown jazz musician ahead of his Toronto Jazz Fest performance Tuesday, June 28, at the Glenn Gould Studio. -- Anupa Mistry

In everything written about you, the phrase “Indian-Americans” always shows up, but I’ve also read you saying that the racial paradigm is frustrating, so does that phrase ever get annoying?

Well, it’s in my bio because either people look at my name and get it or, more commonly, they look at my name and have no fucking idea what it is, you know? So that’s to kind of diffuse that tension in the first or second sentence. But also, I’m not ashamed of it: it’s made me who I am. It sets up the dynamic of difference at the beginning, but really, that dynamic is there before I even show up, say anything, or play anything so I may as well claim it.

How important is that visibility, do you think, in terms of being in a line of “non-traditional” work?

Our community only started existing in this country in the ’60s, really. That’s when the immigration law changed and the first big wave of immigrants came to the U.S. and had children. When I was growing up there weren’t any of us in culture whatsoever. This was before there were people like, even, Rushdie, you know? Now we’re on TV, and in politics (for better or worse), and in the corporate world too—and also we’re having our own scandals now! We’re in the news in a lot of different ways, some of it is tremendous, some of it is horrible—but its good when that representation gets tweaked a little. Traveling around the U.S. and meeting other Indian-Americans who come to my shows, I can see that it’s been an inspiration—especially for people who are 10 to 20 years younger than me. To be out there and doing this has, and I don’t want to self-aggrandize or anything, made some kind of difference: it’s been said to me many times and it’s meaningful and one of the reasons I keep doing it.

Okay, so my parents were weird about me listening to rap music even though they bought me Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise tape when I was, like, 8. How did you grow up with music?

I remember the first record my older sister bought was Saturday Night Fever. I was probably four or five. We had plenty of pop stuff in the house. I remember buying Prince’s Purple Rain right when it came out and Thriller too. In terms of jazz, part of it was that I learned to play piano by improvising—it wasn’t structured or guided in any way. The piano was there, and my ear had been trained because of violin so I was able to pick things out. I would try and play the songs I heard on the radio—Michael Jackson and the Beatles. My high school had a good music program and I was in the orchestra but they let me join the jazz ensemble. When I first auditioned, I didn’t know how jazz was structured so I kind of made my version of it without knowing what was going on. My band director said it was important to learn about the music—the history, the theory, the repertoire and so on. So I did that every day in eleventh and twelfth grade.

Do you remember connecting with a particular record?

I remember seeing Billy Taylor, who passed away earlier this year, on the CBS Morning Show that my dad used to watch. This was the mid-’80s so Wynton Marsalis was becoming prominent; he was on Saturday Night Live! I would check stuff out at the library— Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis—and look at who is playing on the record and wrote the songs. That path led me to Thelonious Monk. I’d heard so much about him. I think it was Monk In Tokyo and Giants Of Jazz that made me think, ‘Wow, he’s barely playing.’ There’s all this wide open space in the music and when he did play it was just one or two notes, and they’d have this elemental force. It was really mysterious to me. It was much more structural and would have this kind of cataclysmic effect, compared to other musicians who were orbiting around the music like mosquitoes. I was like ‘Is he even playing music right now?’ And that’s a good feeling, I love that feeling. I became obsessed with him and I still am really, and that’s like 25 years later.

"It was grounding for me to have elements in my own work that were linked to my heritage...It was a way for me to be myself in the music which I'd never really seen before."

When did you first start exploring Indian forms?

It’s more about rhythms for me. I do deal a little with ragas, but it’s sort of hard on a piano. I was never trained in Indian music—well, but I wasn’t trained in piano either, so who cares?! I moved to California when I was 20 for graduate school and it was sort of an identity-driven mission. Early memories of seeing Carnatic music made me curious about what the percussionists were doing, and especially in South Indian music, they’re improvising and responding to what’s happening. So I got more into the structural side of that. I was starting to become more of a composer so that knowledge was helpful in creating more variety and rigor.

But also, it was grounding for me to have elements in my own work that were linked to my heritage. In the Bay Area I connected with Asian Improv Arts. They are community organizers as well as creative musicians, so they dealt with identity in this empowering way. It wasn’t just ornamental, they had this radical sensibility that connected music to activism, so working with elements of your identity or heritage in the music was part of the whole mission and ideology. That was really inspiring; it was a way for me to be myself in the music which I’d never really seen before, at that time.

Does race still play a role in jazz?

For me, to be playing jazz is to be dealing with race. It’s such a fraught, racially-charged subculture and it is polarized. You’ll find whole communities of white musicians, who only play with other white musicians. You’ll also see other African-American musicians who only play with other African-Americans, but often for the purpose of hiring or collaborating for empowerment reasons. Elder African-Americans will hire younger African-Americans because they want to nurture them. When white people do it, that’s basically what it is but it doesn’t get named as such—that’s sort of a privilege of whiteness, not having to name yourself as white.

That reminds me, I wanted to ask you about that New York Times top 10 composer list you tweeted, kinda angrily, about…

Did you know they have SIX classical critics? It’s disproportionate! Anthony Tommasini made a list of the top 10 composers and, of course, they were all dead white males. Like, why are these guys so great? Well, basically because you and everyone in your scene says so! I mean, they’re completely influential, but can you honestly say that Mozart was the greatest musician that ever lived? Particularly though, Tommasini’s not dealing with any artists from the 20th century before 1950, and also there were no women on it. It’s just dumb. He would also happily admit that it’s a biased list and he is who he is but this was on the front page of the Times’ website for months—it wasn’t some inconsequential list on a blog. At least acknowledge how influential you are! (Laughs) It’s a cultural institution and it affects the way people think and yet this happens all the time.

The media is beyond diversity training, I think.

Well also, in a way, the language of diversity has kind of regressed in the last decade or so. I feel like, somehow, since the culture wars of the late ’80s and early ’90s, there’s been this deep backlash. People don’t even know these basic things about race and power and they act like ‘Oh, that’s all PC nonsense’ without even knowing what they’re talking about. You have such a spread of levels of awareness.

"Either you’re white and neutral or else you perform your ethnicity, like Lil Wayne or something. You can’t be in between."

Does this kind of tie back into why you think visibility is important?

Remember though, visibility doesn’t always shift the power balance. Like, black people are visible but they’re disproportionately unemployed and incarcerated and have the highest infant mortality rate. There’s still this deep power imbalance that persists well because, I don’t know, white people don’t like to share? (Laughs) My parents worked hard and created a stable environment for me, I never wanted for anything, I had a really good undergraduate education and they paid for it. So, in a lot of ways, I’m a child of privilege. But entering culture was a different thing: trying to get a record deal it was always, ‘Are people going to buy a record with your name and face on it?’ Certainly in the ’90s and during most of the last decade the answer was ‘No.’ This is still true because now they can really track statistics on different factors and variables. And it’s purely about money. So it’s on a consumer level first, then on a label decision-maker level. Either you’re white and neutral or else you perform your ethnicity, like Lil Wayne or something. You can’t be in between.

This is why I like following you on Twitter! You’re totally present and engaged instead of just being, like, quiet about all these weird machinations. Is jazz still political then?

It is for me. There are a lot of jazz musicians today who are completely apolitical, which I find beguiling. It partly has to do with who is making the music now and why. One thing that’s happened in the last couple of decades is the proliferation of jazz schools. So people will get undergraduate degrees in jazz studies or performance, usually in some sort of conservatory model, and that’s for people who can afford to do that and would over something that’s a bit more lucrative. So it’s for people who are more privileged, basically. We’re almost two generations into that dynamic.

It’s much rarer to find people who grew up in the ghetto now playing jazz, because that path was, for the most part, not available to them. Whereas 20 years ago you would find those people, and certainly 50 years ago that was all you found. That was where the music came from: that kind of real edgy (as in ‘being on the edge’) marginality and not having anything. Trying to do the impossible is what jazz is to me. You can hear the defiance in the music, and that’s partly why it has had this universal impact: not just because people were virtuosos, but there was this storytelling quality and it literally came from struggle. Maybe people hear that in some hip-hop, certainly in the early days of hip-hop. But nowadays that stuff is on display in a grotesque way because that’s what makes money, and that theatricalism is what teenaged white kids want to buy. But anyway, in terms of jazz, most people who do it today went to school for it and because they’re good at it—privileged prodigies. Those my age or younger came through that scenario, and therefore have no reason to be political because it was never their problem.

Being the first Indian-American jazz musician, I had to create possibility from impossibility. I don’t want to say it was the type of struggle that people like Monk had just to survive, but it inspired me because of that. Like, Monk was born to a single mother who moved her three kids to New York in the ’20 so her kids could legally go to high school. It’s heartbreaking. What’s my excuse for not making it? Why can’t I? I don’t find that many younger people in this music are inspired by that aspect of it, they’re often inspired by the sound and virtuosity, the beauty of music, which is itself a great thing, but it’s not the only thing.

Is that path-forging what draws you to people like M.I.A. and Das Racist?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s the same force.

Das Racist is good, but are also kind of crazy.

In terms of ‘working’ with them, this was about 75 minutes of my life! (Laughs). It was a blast, but it was also kind of a blip. They’re hilarious and we had a good time. One of the reasons we connected is that Heems (Himanshu Suri) said he liked the way I’d make jokes on Twitter. He said something like, ‘If you didn’t have mad jokes, man, I don’t know if I’d be working with you. I respect you but if you can make me laugh that makes me feel okay.’ That makes me feel glad.


What about the M.I.A. cover from Historicity?

The M.I.A. cover wasn’t something I thought people would hear and then think that I was hip. (Laughs) I admired her because of the inventiveness and the force she brought into music that was just so powerful and inspiring and seductive and kind of hilarious. It’s outspoken and not just because she talks about Sri Lankan politics, but because her identity is so undeniable. Musically, there’s nothing there that seems accessible to an acoustic jazz trio—piano, bass and drums have no place in that music! (Laughs) It’s proudly synthetic and from the digital junkyard of the third millennium, like it was put together by consumer electronics and it’s cheap but it has improbable power. I wanted to see if I could force an alignment between my group and just that one track, ‘Galang.’ It would be so unstable that it could only last the length of the song, so I was looking at the inner workings of the track, transcribing it and orchestrating it for our instruments for something we could use. It happened in a day, which is basically how our records are made anyway—they’re a snapshot of what a band is doing.

Who are you listening to now?

Craig Taborn just put out a solo piano record that’s not like any other. To me, he’s the number one pianist living today. He’s from my generation as well, but is really interesting and eclectic and aware of all types of music. I’ve been going back to folk music too, like Gnawa music from Morroco. It’s a world I can just listen to it and be in for a while. I saw Flying Lotus play live the other day here in New York. He’s really onto something. There were two or three opening acts that were cool, but when he came on it was just… I mean what I wrote on Twitter was “uncanny rhythmic truths” (laughs) because he’s found a way to make irregular sound regular. There’s lopsidedness to a lot of the beats, but the effect it has is so undeniable. It’s kind of coming out of Dilla, sort of? It’s visceral: played at that volume at a club you feel pockets of air flying around your body and you’re moving in a way that’s tethered to rhythm. That’s what I mean by rhythmic truth, truth about human motion. Musically speaking, I don’t think it’s something that’s been articulated to that degree before. I also really like Georgia Anne Muldrow, Muhsinah and Shabazz Palaces.

You retweeted my idea about the harmonium being really conducive to the melody of Fabolous’ “You Be Killin’ Em.” Any chance of making that happen?

(Laughs) Well, I actually have a harmonium but I don’t play it much. The question would really be, why?