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.

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