Vijay Iyer: Listening and teaching at Harvard


Jazz musician and educator Vijay Iyer talks about the culture shift in jazz. 

Andrew Chow '14

Vijay Iyer could be could be touring the world and cementing his title as the world’s best jazz pianist. (He is the back-to-back Jazz Journalists Association Pianist of the Year and the 2013 ECHObest international pianist.) He could be in the studio with his trio, working on a follow-up to 2012’s Accelerando, which was awarded with an unprecedented quintuple crown in the DownBeat International Critics Poll and a quadruple crown in the JazzTimes extended critics poll. Or he could take some time off. He has certainly earned it.

Instead, he’s working at Harvard, as a newly minted professor and MacArthur “genius.”  Iyer is invested in Harvard’s musical future and has become a leader in pushing for jazz to take a greater role on campus for the long term. “I wanted to start thinking about building a community, and not just be a ‘resident jazz expert,’ because I’m not,” Iyer says. “The culture needs to shift here.”

Iyer speaks in slow eloquent phrases, often swapping out one word in a sentence for a more descriptive or accurate one. He has taken the same care and composure to the class he’s teaching, Music 173r: Creative Music: Critical Practice Studio (which I’m currently taking). I’m a jazz pianist who’s listening to Iyer’s music for years, and I excitedly applied to the course, thinking it was going to be a master class workshop. It’s been a little bit of that and

Vijay Iyer
far more: a fusion of a workshop and a jazz ethics seminar, in which we’ve gone deep into readings by Amiri Baraka, George Lewis, Wadada Leo Smith and many others to investigate the origins of jazz and the narratives rarely told.

“A lot of people learn ‘jazz’ through this really cheap and kind of emaciated imitation of something that happened in the 50s,” Iyer says, referring to the bebop-centric approach of many music schools and conservatories. “But this music has been characterized by constant change – discontinuities and ruptures, and local versions that had their own distinct character and identity. And young musicians in your generation haven’t had access to any of this other stuff that happened in the last 50 years. This music is 100 years old, and for some reason we’ve failed to account for at least half of it.”

In class, we’ve watched videos of Sun Ra, delved into the histories of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, listened to Albert Ayler and the Shaggs, and even read a scholarly piece on embodied cognition and musical perception – written by Iyer. It has been a challenging, eye-opening ride that’s presented jazz in an entirely new way to me, which is exactly what Iyer intended for his students. “To build a sense of community on campus, students need to critically engage with this field, this history … and feel empowered to act,” he says.

It hasn’t been a one-way exchange. Iyer has been critically engaging with and learning from many parts of the university. He attended colloquia at the Humanities Center and at the African and African American Studies department, interacted with professors such as Tommie Shelby, and gave a talk at the Graduate School of Design. “It’s been very energizing for me as an artist,” Iyer says. “Stuff I wrote last week, I wrote it because of what I’ve been doing here.”

Iyer brought this energy and and cross-disciplinary impulse with him to Sanders Theatre on March 14, when he performed with his trio and poet Robert Pinsky. While performing with Pinksy, who read a set of poems including one about Charlie Parker, Iyer used his laptop to create swells and spooky ambient noises. With the trio, Iyer hacked away at the keys, jumping in and out of pulsating grooves that shook Sanders to its core.

After the ensuing standing ovation, Iyer thanked his audience, saying, “We can hear your listening.” Professor Iyer has been listening closely to the community at Harvard, and by doing so, has already deeply affected the music world here.

Find out more about Harvard’s ARTS FIRST Festival, May 1-4.
Read more about Vijay Iyer in a New York Times interview.
Listen to Vijay Iyer talk about Accelerando.
Check out this comprehensive lineup of Vijay Iyer stories from JazzTimes.