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.