Interview with Vijay Iyer by A. Shuman

April 1997

A.S.:1) I'm also interviewing Jon Jang this week, and he's had a lot to say about the state of jazz education today, in light of his experiences at a conservatory that Europeanized or relativized jazz, and in light of what students face in high schools today, where if they're lucky enough to have a jazz program, they're usually trained to replicate the score instead of interpreting it and to respect notes, not sounds.

From what I've read, you had a pretty synergistic musical upbringing: you started classical violin at age 3, applied this training to the piano which you taught yourself, and grew up in a household rich in South East Asian music. Is it this diversity that led you to jazz? When did you devote yourself to jazz, and why? (The CD liner notes kind of gloss over this.) How would the principles of your upbringing, applied in the classroom, change music education?

V.I.: [First, a factual distinction: my family is South Asian (aka "East Indian," to use the antiquated term), not Southeast Asian. South Asia includes Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan. Southeast Asia typically is meant to include the Phillipines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and probably some other countries that I am forgetting. The notion of "South Asian identity" is a recent invention intended to promote solidarity among the diasporic peoples of the various South Asian cultures, who are typically treated as one monolithic people and targeted as such in acts of racism, discrimination, and hate crime. The term "South Asian" functions in much the same way that "East Asian" does, namely, to unify diverse peoples against a common threat, in the name of empowerment and coalition-building. Note that "East Asian American" is frequently and erroneously conflated with "Asian American", whereas the latter should rightfully encompass East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian peoples living in America.]

My parents came to the US in the mid-'60s. They are of South Indian origin (i.e. their families came from Tamil-speaking regions in southern India), but they each grew up in urban centers like Bombay and Hyderabad, which are increasingly cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse -- by which I mean that many of the hundred-odd South Asian language-cultures are represented. One aspect of their Indian-ness that I find important is the constant multiplicity of languages that have always been part of their consciousness. Implicit in this awareness is an acceptance of difference, and an openness and adaptability to different cultural influences. By this last point I do not mean that adaptation takes place at the expense of previous cultural ties, but rather that other viewpoints are respected equally with one's own. Another aspect of their lives which has also found its way into my awareness is a certain kind of critical consciousness, reflected partially in their ambivalence towards their homeland, traditions, and religion, much of which they left behind when they came to this country. Their critical awareness also results from their having grown up in a country that struggled under and finally overthrew the power structures of British imperialism. They came of age in a time of revolution, so (I believe) an awareness of the possibility of dismantling of old paradigms structures their consciousness.

I could describe what it all added up to as a deeply improvisational way of life. As my parents, part of the first major wave of South Asian immigrants to this country, sought to carve out a niche for themselves in American society, they had to stay acutely aware and to readjust continually to their environment, in order to flourish without compromising their sense of self. This was made possible in part by taking part in a larger Indian diasporic community where they lived, attending social, religious, and cultural events, and maintaining their home languages and customs.

In its broadest sense, improvisation embodies the process of humans interacting with each other and with their environments and finding their own ways of expressing themselves. This is especially true in the kind of improvisation that appears in African-derived musics. I can't tell you WHY exactly I became a so-called "jazz musician." I might say that it "happened to me," sometime in my adolescence. But I can say that the musical languages and codes from the "jazz" traditions that speak through me make it possible for me to BE MYSELF -- just as my parents had to figure out how to be themselves in an alien environment. In a way it makes sense that these musical modes of discourse were initiated by African Americans, because as long as they have been in the "New World," Africans have needed to form their own private means of expression based on their explicit and implicit African sensibilities, as an act of resistance to the attempted categorical erasure of their cultural knowledge base.

I canŐt really say what the "principles of my upbringing" really were. ItŐs true that I studied violin from age 3, and that I used to hear various kinds of Indian religious, classical, and popular music at home. The way I learned piano was completely due to my own curiosity, and almost completely unconscious -- again, it just "happened to me" (or "jes' grew," as some people said a century ago about the genesis of ragtime music). I was rarely aware of "trying" to do anything, except following my intuition. But I was only able to do this (i) by having a developed ear, which came from my early start on violin; (ii) by having some quantitative ability, which had always been encouraged by my parents, who groomed me for the sciences from an early age; and (iii) by listening to a lot of music, which has always been the case for me since childhood. Piano is probably the easiest instrument to learn without instruction, because there's relatively little technical maintenance required, and because it's relatively easy to get a sound out of the instrument immediately (as opposed to trumpet, for example). Later on when I was in high school, I learned some basics about tonal harmony and so-called "jazz harmony," and took those raw materials in my own direction. Mainly I have learned by listening to records, playing with other musicians, and endeavoring to absorb information from wherever I could.

I think that I have been a frustrating teacher to the few piano students I have had, because I try to give them unstructured, raw information to rework as they please, instead of being a stern taskmaster like the stereotypical classical piano teacher. Since I had no piano teacher, I try to teach people by setting them in motion with basic concepts and then leaving them alone. That method works with very few people, and I would recommend that only those people become creative musicians! The thing is, you don't just "learn jazz" by paying someone to teach it to you. Acceptance of that musical tradition as part of you, to the point that you can truly contribute something interesting, involves major life choices, independence, a great deal of individual and collective thought, and commitment to change. You won't learn all of that from taking piano lessons.

I'm doing a great job of not answering your questions!

2) In one of the interviews, I've read, you discuss going to college and learning about jazz. At that time, what did you feel you had to learn that you hadn't been able to teach yourself? What did you get of your academic study of jazz that you couldn't from your practicing education in it? How did these forms of learning differ?

What I learned in college courses was a more detailed sense of the history of African-American musics, from the Middle Passage up to the current day, and also a more detailed sense of the connections between West African and African-American musics and cultures. I definitely could have learned this from reading books, but someone had to direct my attention to those books, and thatŐs what college is good for. And even then, details of this history are encoded not just in books but also in the music itself, and in the everyday articulations and elaborations of the subcultures that have produced those musics. I was simply blind to it until people like Profs. Olly Wilson and John Szwed and C. K. Ladzekpo helped open my eyes so that I could experience it myself. I guess that that kind of study gave me a framework into which I could fit raw information -- i.e., structure to my knowledge. It helped, for example, to see the so-called be-bop era against its social backdrop of black American unrest after WWII, and also to understand that Bird, Diz, Monk, Bud, and so on were poor people who had nothing to lose by initiating a radical, collective means of expression. It helped to be told that rhythmic and structural techniques used by James Brown are similar to those used in West African drum ensembles.

But one also learns those kinds of things from being immersed in a music-culture, and in fact, when such information structures are learned or appreciated in this non-academic environment, they yield deeper truths. It's like having a home-cooked meal (or cooking it yourself!) instead of buying someone else's cooking -- the total experience is better, because you are aware of the work and process and love that went into its creation.

3) In one of the interviews I've read, you say something about realizing the community roots, the communal basis of jazz when you started playing out in Oakland with older players. I wanted you to elaborate on this a bit: when was this? where were you playing, and who were you playing with? what were some of the specific experiences that made you realize this?

In my senior year in college at Yale (1991-92), I did a lot of playing in the rather economically depressed surrounding city of New Haven. There were times (I remember one in particular, when I was taking a solo over "Night in Tunisia" at a place called Malcolm's) there when I realized that my playing was "speaking" directly to certain (mainly African-American) audience members, who were speaking right back to me! I began to realize consciously what I had felt intuitively all along -- that this music carries extra information beyond the "note" level. Jazz educators focus on the notes and chords and things like that, but that's not at all what it's about. Those things are just carriers of the real information. I believe that this concept of musically encoded information is ancient, and very non-Western -- specifically African, but it also appears in other cultures.

Then when I moved to the Bay Area in 1992, for over a year I was the house pianist in jam sessions at the Bird Kage, a club on Telegraph Avenue in north Oakland. It was another space for collective musical expression, involving the audience and all the musicians as well. This session was (and still is) run by a trumpet player in his 70Ős named Robert Porter, who has many stories to tell. Many of the other musicians (Ed Kelley, Smiley Winters, Leon Williams, Achyutan, Ronald Wilson, and even Pharaoh Sanders) were older, and I found that the music we were playing was a profound expression of their lives, and the lives of the audience members as well. A lot of these old standards and Tin Pan Alley tunes had been part of these people's collective memories, and improvising over a tune like "Out of Nowhere" or "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" was a way of bringing old memories back to life, and reworking and commenting on them in a musical context. The process that some people call "Signifyin(g)" -- the continual reference to a shared, tacit, collectively understood body of knowledge -- was always going on. And I had similar musical-dialogic experiences with other musicians and audience members there. Musical expression really was like conversing, or even like some kind of collective ritual. Experimentation and originality were valued, not criticized, because it was a way of bringing your point of view to the table.

As George Lewis has written, musical improvisation functions as the exchange of personal narrative. We are encouraged in improvisational contexts to "tell our own story" symbolically through music. This is true in many oral traditions, whenever the musician or singer or storyteller is expected to embellish, update, or reinvent; aspects of the artist's personality are "carried" in these improvisational elements, and in the performer's holistic approach. This is part of the information that was and is communicated in the musical contexts described above.

4) It's become trendy in some critics' circles to prophecy the death of jazz. These people note the aging of the scene and its prime players-- the Taylors and Colemans-- and say two things: that youth aren't coming in numbers to replace them, and that the few who are-- Joshua Redman, for example-- are getting pushed into band leadership prematurely by record companies eager to promote them and so, not having paid the proverbial dues or had enough time to woodshed or whatever, they are turning into bland mediocrities or imitators.

Add to this the cuts in arts funding and education, the attacks by the jazz retrogarde (Wynton Marsalis et. al.) on the more radical parts of the tradition, and the emphasis corporations and their mouthpieces (Marsalis again) put on enshrining one kind of jazz, and these critics build their case.

How would you respond to this argument? Where does the future of the music lie? What role do jazz collectives and independent labels have to play? Who are some twenty-something players outside the Bay Area that you'd recommend?

I don't know anything about the future of jazz or "the music" as many people call it (as opposed to "American music" or just "music"). I see hip-hop today as most closely parallel to what jazz once was, namely, a truly organic expression of urban African-American experiences, created mostly by poor people using the meager resources available to them. It has a whole world of its own that is quite separate from the mainstream music industry, but it is continually interacting with and scraping up against the mainstream, shaping and being shaped by contemporary esthetics.

My friend Aaron Stewart pointed out that in a way, each generation of African Americans in the 20th century has had to build a music-culture essentially from the ground up, due to lack of resources and education about what came before. One could say that there has been an effective hiding of information about the work of monumental figures in black cultural history, so there is a constant process of wheel reinvention. Thus by previous standards, hip-hop music is musically derivative and dull, because it doesn't have enough chord changes or melodies. But the fact is that hip-hop culture has its own highly developed and elaborate esthetics and standards that are quite distinctive. Wynton Marsalis goes into print saying that hip-hop contains no thought or care or knowledge and requires no practice or skill to create, but the rappers, lyricists, DJs, and producers I know are incredibly talented people who are always thinking about their craft and their message on many levels. So to say that "the music" has a precarious future is to ignore the fact that "music" is all around us, changing with the times.

We have before our eyes, in hip-hop, a popular music (like jazz once was) with its own set of codes and references to black culture (like jazz), requiring highly developed improvisational skills (like jazz) and speaking the voice of an oppressed minority (like jazz). The main difference is that the means of musical production is different -- samplers, turntables, and lyrics have replaced instruments, chords, and melodies, but that's because so few people in the inner city have had access to instruments and instruction. And in fact it has a whole underground stratum that is motivated less by profit and fame than it is by circulation of information and mutual respect. Of course, like any other aspect of the music industry, hip-hop has its sordid side as well, and (true to form) the media focuses on that side.

I don't care about somebody's music today getting called jazz, or about so-called jazz continuing to get played. That's really not the issue, any more than the fact that American English has departed significantly from British English is an issue. Languages and musics and cultures change in time due to many factors. If a certain mode of expression has lost its relevance by becoming eclipsed by something else or detached from the culture that produced it, then so be it. I am glad that there is a small number of people trying to keep it "alive", but it really doesn't matter in a larger sense. The fact is that there has always been music organically arising from cultures and dying away, too; today is no exception.

But I do care about information being available to people, and I do care about the presence of a plurality of viewpoints that are well-informed and articulate. These are the true things that are dying, to the extent that they were ever alive. This is because of poor education and misplaced priorities. The people teaching jazz are teaching it mainly to white suburban kids who pay $20K a year, and they're teaching it only at the notes-and-chords level, instead of at the true level of expression. And that's because that kind of thing can't be taught through the contemporary European-derived conservatory methods. I don't see that as much of a threat, though. The real threat is that information is hidden from the people who need it, and history is rewritten. The true history of African-American music is hidden from people who don't go to college, because it's not a part of America's selective memory -- it doesn't appear on TV or get referred to continually in American culture. Everyone knows who Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Albert Einstein were, but very few people know who Coltrane or Bird or Duke Ellington or Miles Davis were. More people know Bird as a drug addict than as a crucial musical figure. Can you imagine what would happen if there were a community of talented hip-hoppers who had digested all of jazz, R&B, and funk history at a high level, and could play musical instruments at a high level as well?

All I can say is that musicians need to (1) remain in touch with their cultural surroundings and to be aware of the strands of history that have contributed to those surroundings, (2) resist appropriation and exploitation by large record companies and the mainstream music industry, which is easier to do if they join forces with like-minded artists, and (3) continue to produce and document their own music, regardless of the music industry or of popular support. If it is a truly honest music, then all these other trappings of material success shouldn't matter. It is great for people to start their own record companies, but then distribution becomes a problem, and contending with the major stores like Tower and Borders draws you back into the whole game. There are certain powerful distributors (Koch, Allegro) who seem to like to focus on independent creative music, and I respect that. One thing I have hoped is that music distribution via the internet (facilitated by home CD-recorders, coming soon) would become more and more possible, requiring less and less control from these centralizing corporate forces. That is the good thing about the web (for now, anyway), that it represents a decentralization of authority. You can find all kinds of right and wrong information out there, just like at the library. But you can choose to believe or not believe anything you read, because the information on the web is somewhat equalized; no one says that you should believe one author more than another. In that way you get to structure your own information intake and processing. That may be the only hope we have right now to combat the Starbucking of America.

I digress. As for up-and-coming musicians in this realm, I don't buy many new records these days, but there are some musicians out there whom I have enjoyed hearing. I think Gonzalo Rubalcaba is pretty amazing at what he does. He has sensibilities that are distinct from "jazz", so he gets some flak from American jazz audiences, but if you listen to him on his own terms, in his own group with his usual Cuban collaborators, you realize that he is an extraordinarily creative and technically accomplished pianist. I'll never sound anything like him, so I can say anything I want! The Leon Parker - David Sanchez - Danilo Perez crowd seems to have an interesting and contemporary outlook, because they are skilled at what they do but are aware of a larger world of music beyond it. I think that's part of whatŐs necessary now -- a sense of humility, and a sense of connection to the larger picture. But my favorite contemporaries are people I've been working with: alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa (another Indian-American like me, currently living in Chicago), tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart (living in Brooklyn), and guitarist Liberty Ellman (San Francisco). That's because I've gotten to know and appreciate what they do in a detailed way. You'll be hearing from each of them soon enough! I also think that kotoist/improvisor/composer Miya Masaoka is one of the most brilliant and innovative artists I know, but she's in her 30s so I guess that disqualifies her. Ani DeFranco (sp?), Erykah Badu and Me'Shell NdegeOcello are creative pop musicians. As for hip-hop, well, there are all kinds of people out there doing something interesting, from Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul to KRS-One to Busta Rhymes ... Then there's the whole Afro-Cuban world, the Bhangra orbit, and people who make dance mixes, and people who play or compose European-style classical and modern music, and up-and-coming people who perform in Asian musical traditions who are worth catching, and West African pop stars... The music world is infinite, and confining one's scope to a narrowly-circumscribed patch of it is pointless at this time in history. It's all right to dismiss certain genres that seem thoroughly motivated by profit, but there are so many musics in the world that are not.


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