Vijay Iyer on Abandoning the Word “Jazz”

Nonstop Sound recently spoke  with rising jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, after his Winter Jazz Festival gig at Le Poisson Rouge. Beyond his lucid description of New York City and its musical lifeforce, Iyer spoke on identity formation and creating community out of music.

Nonstop Sound: We're really interested in your album Tirtha, in regard to your heritage and your talking about racial justice a lot in public. Where does all this come from?
Vijay Iyer: "I work from what I know, from what I’ve experienced. But I also try and reach into what I don’t know. I guess my work as a musician as a composer and as a bandleader is kind of navigating that dialogue between what’s me and what’s not me. So, what’s me is a lot of different things.
I was groomed for the sciences growing up, so my college degree is in physics and that was what I thought I was going to do, before I finally realized at the age of 23 that the world was going to let me be an artist. So that was a big step for me to take, partly because at the time – I’m talking about the early, mid ‘90s now – there weren’t many people who looked like me or who had my background in this kind of music, or really, in American culture at all. Nowadays you see people like Aziz Ansari and all these guys on TV. ... As I was coming of age, this was really a new thing. So part of my process was just figuring out how to be a person in America and how to be an artist and how to negotiate that. It was new enough that parts of it had to be invented. It wasn’t like I had clear role models.
But my main role models were people from the African-American community who innovated under much more dire circumstances than I ever experienced and who created this music the world knows and loves now. So I was inspired by Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and all these innovative, creative geniuses. And then I had the benefit of working with some really stellar, extremely courageous artists, like Steve Coleman, Roscoe Mitchell, Butch Morris, and all these guys taught me so much about self-determination and being self-assured in what you do and really working from who you are. But also being rigorous with information and just being disciplined about what you do, working with whole systems of knowledge that might be new to you and reaching in and trying to learn about them and work with them."
NS: You say the world lets you be an artist. In that regard we always found it fascinating that you’re self-taught at jazz piano. Does being self-taught in this idiom sort of explode the last 50 years of jazz?
VI: "Lately it’s become more like that. But if you look at the history of the music, the way I learned is more like the way people used to learn. It’s the way Duke Ellington learned to play the piano. It’s the way Muhal Richard Abrams learned to play the piano. ... And they also learned from working with elders. And that’s exactly how I learned.
I had the benefit, when I was living in California in the ‘90s, I got to work with these amazing elder musicians from Oakland who schooled me in ways I can’t even describe. I mean, being on the bandstand with them, being in rehearsal with them, just carrying their equipment. I worked with this elder drummer, who’s not so well known outside of the West Coast but who used to tour with McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, all those guys. His name is E.W. Wainwright and he had a group that used to go play in prisons in California. So we’d go play in a maximum security ward at [San] Quentin, stuff like this. And that was an amazing education because you kind of saw what music, what this area of music especially, was always about.
It was always about community, connecting with heritage, and pushing the boundaries of what was possible. So that’s an attitude I really feel close to. Especially because I had to, like I said, innovate an identity for myself as an Indian-American, because that was when I was growing up, a very new thing. So I took my cues from people who were that inventive or more inventive with music and life as one thing."
NS: In terms of identity, moving beyond Tirtha or you as a pianist alone, your trio that we heard tonight is very varied in its influences. Where is jazz for you right now when you can draw from so many identities to create your own?
VI: "I think that this music was always hybrid. It was always coming from a lot of different places. It has its roots in the African-American community, but it also has a history of reaching outward. Even the idea of taking some dumb pop song from a Broadway show and turning it into something unbelievable, which is what everyone did in the ‘20s ‘30s and ‘40s, and that continues today. The new album [Accelerando, March 2012] I cover a Flying Lotus track, and we did one by Heatwave, this funk band from the ‘70s. In past albums I’ve covered stuff, both in the history of great composers both associated with this tradition -- Duke Ellington, Henry Threadgill, Julius Hemphill, Andrew Hill -- some of my heroes, but also music that’s been meaningful to me. So we do 'Human Nature,' which is a song from my childhood that came out when I was 10 or 11 years old and I listened to it thousands of times. I know that song backwards. It’s like the air I breathe. I think we’re all like this really.
It’s easy to imagine that genre is something that’s pre-ordained. But really genre is a kind of misreading of the way communities interact and make music together. I don’t really think of genres. I think of communities. I think of groups of people who work together and create something according to a shared set of assumptions or principles or aesthetics. And it’s given a name sort of after the fact. Because the name is not what matters. It’s really about the creative spirit which is universal, which everybody has inside of them. And that’s what we’re all doin."
NS: That makes us rethink of jazz as a continuum of the way you draw from the world rather than as a continuum of music.
VI: "I said the other day, if we’re going to use what’s now being called “the J word” -- there’s kind of a movement to jettison that word in fact -- but if we’re going to use it, we have to understand it not as a style of music but as basically a strategy of transformation. Because it’s about transforming yourself and your surroundings and people around you, working with materials you have at hand, what you have at your disposal. When we talk about improvised music, it’s improvised not just in the sense that I’m choosing what notes to play, but I’m also choosing everything about it and putting it together because it’s what we have. If you were stranded in the forest overnight, you might improvise a tent out of some branches and a blanket. And when you think about it that way, that’s kind of what this music is. It’s a strategy for survival, a strategy for transformation and connection, and a strategy for creative becoming, I think is the best way to put it.
See more Vijay Iyer in Nonstop Sound's video interview.
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