Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Vijay Iyer: Othering

Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer

For four days in late-January 2004, the annual conference of the International Association of Jazz Educators subsumed a swatch of midtown Manhattan. One of the week’s events was a reception in a cavernous Sheraton ballroom, at which I bumped into Vijay Iyer. The pianist and composer had just wrapped a remarkable year, in which he’d released two ambitious albums, received a prestigious arts fellowship and reaped a cavalcade of praise. Iyer had been tapped as a panelist at IAJE not for one but a handful of topics-including jazz and hip-hop, jazz and Indian music and “Racial Considerations in Jazz Journalism.” This was probably the most panel duty of anyone at the conference, and certainly more than any other musician. But when I mentioned it, Iyer shook his head. “I just hope I don’t get myself in trouble,” he said, as a splendiferous Roy Haynes stocked up on hors d’oeuvres nearby.

I had forgotten this exchange until recently, when I reexamined the peculiar position Iyer inhabits in the realm of jazz. A distinctive pianist and intensely creative composer, he has been lauded not only by the usual sources but also such jazz-averse publications as U.S. News and World Report. Still, it’s unlikely that many at IAJE had ever heard his music. Those who had were likely to subject it to categorization-as evidenced by the well-intentioned urge to uphold Iyer as a spokesman for “jazz and hip-hop,” or “jazz and Indian music,” or “jazz and racial considerations.” This is the pigeonholing that keeps Iyer at arm’s length from the jazz tradition, despite his own intentions and experience. The irony is that his work preempts such perceptions.

Start Your Free Trial to Continue Reading

Become a JazzTimes member to explore our complete archive of interviews, profiles, columns, and reviews written by music's best journalists and critics.
Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).